Business in this age of market fundamentalism is cock-a-hoop with the Davies report decision to recommend Heathrow. They would be, wouldn’t they, since the report has focused largely on the supposed economic benefits while claiming that all the toxic underside of the decision can be ‘managed’. However the feasibility of the latter needs to be subject to a realistic appraisal, not just assumed. It is said that night flights will be banned between 11.30pm and 6am, but ‘respite periods’ when some areas don’t suffer overhead noise will be reduced from half the working day to just a third. The report allows for a huge 54% increase in passenger numbers (more than a quarter of a million a year), but claims this is compatible with a cap on aviation emissions just above current levels – in fact a wing and a prayer that is dependent on big increases in cleaner engines which may or may not be delivered.
The report tries to calm anxieties about the future by saying that a fourth Heathrow runway should be ruled out by legislation. But we’ve been here before: the £3,000 cap on tuition fees was broken once politicians were through an election, and Osborne’s ludicrous proposal to require a permanent budget surplus will be broken when it is necessary or convenient. We were told long ago when the fourth Heathrow was built that there would be no fifth; surprise, surprise, there was. The report claims that the number of jobs generated will be increased by 18,000 to 77,000. But the overwhelming proportion of these jobs will be low-tech and low pay.
Then there are the claimed economic benefits which also need to be weighed carefully. The key one is that it is said it will yield benefits of between £131-147bn over 60 years, that is between £2.2bn and £2.4bn a year, which is precisely 0.15% of Britain’s current annual national output – useful, but hardly a game-changer, especially when measured against the increasingly miserable living conditions of a large chunk of west London. It is said that Heathrow expansion is essential for business and ‘connectivity’, yet the proportion of flights dedicated to business (according to official figures) is now lower than it was in 2000. It is said that it will lead to cheaper air fares, but that is far more dependent on global air travel market conditions and the global oil price than on increased capacity.
However the really big question, which the Davies report never faces up to, is whether a fresh Heathrow expansion is compatible with Britain’s legal commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 when by that date on current trends aviation emissions will generate a volume of emissions equal to all other sources put together. In other words it is assumed that all other emission sources – industry, households, power generation and non-aviation transport – have been reduced to zero! If the Davies report believes that, they’ll believe anything.