Thursday, 22 May 2014

UK Airports Commission consultation - Thames Estuary airport

Below is my response to a consultation by the UK Airports Commission on proposals for a new major airport in the UK, in the Thames Estuary. Here are links to three websites with a wealth of information, campaigning against the proposed airport, which would be environmentally devastating to a globally important wildlife habitat and enormously expensive.

Rose Bridger
West Yorkshire

22nd May 2014

Airports Commission
Inner Thames Estuary feasibility studies: call for evidence

I am writing in opposition to proposals for new airport in the Inner Thames Estuary. The project would result in serious and irrevocable environmental damage, most importantly drastically increased greenhouse gas emissions, and also detrimental impacts on local ecosystems. The project would be enormously expensive and the purported economic benefits are exaggerated and unlikely to materialise.

The UK should not be increasing airport capacity because of the high level of greenhouse gas emissions from air transport. Also, our country’s greenhouse gas emissions from aviation are disproportionately high. The UK population already flies more than the vast majority of other nations, an average of over two return flights per capita, exceeded only by a small number of remote island nations. In order to allow poorer countries, where the majority of people have never flown, to benefit from the speedy connectivity brought by aviation, whilst reducing overall global emissions from the sector, the UK should be aiming to stabilise, even contract, our airport capacity. A new airport of the planned scale would be the single biggest carbon emitter in the UK, making it far more difficult, perhaps impossible, to meet our emissions reduction targets.

At a time of prolonged austerity, with cuts to welfare and services hitting the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest, London citizens have already footed the £3 million bill for feasibility studies and promotion of the proposed airport, and this cost is now set to increase to £5 million. If the new airport is actually built the estimated costs have already escalated to £148 billion, much of which would fall on taxpayers. The main beneficiaries of air services would be the wealthy, who fly more than the poor, benefiting disproportionately from the tax breaks bestowed on aviation, from tax free fuel, other tax exemptions such as VAT on ticket sales. Purported economic benefits for the wider community are also thrown into doubt because of the entrenched trend of outbound visitors outnumbering inbound visitors, so the net effect from aviation driven tourism is a drain on the UK economy.

If a new airport is built in the Thames estuary, there is the risk that it will be underutilised or languish empty as an embarrassing white elephant. Montreal Mirabel was built as a new airport for the city, but was never fully utilised then mothballed. In Spain, there are two recent examples of taxpayers forking out for unused airports: Castellon and Ciudad. Several UK airports are not meeting their traffic increase targets and are making losses, including Cardiff and Glasgow Prestwick, both of which have been brought back into public ownership. This does not inspire confidence in the economic viability of a major new airport. The recent closure of Manston Airport in Kent, after making heavy losses, indicates the very opposite of a capacity crisis in the south of England.

Furthermore, there is the risk of significant cost over-runs on such large construction projects, which are not uncommon. Recent examples include Qatar’s Hamad Airport, the new Islamabad Airport, Kuala Lumpur Airport’s new low cost terminal and the fiasco of Germany’s new Berlin Brandenburg Airport where the opening date, already more than 2 years behind schedule, keeps getting pushed backwards and the costs spiralling upwards from the original $2.7 billion estimate.

A key argument made by the Thames Estuary airport’s proponents is that the UK requires a massive expansion in airport capacity in order to compete in the global economy. But, with existing capacity, in particular at Heathrow Airport, the UK already has the best international air connectivity in the world. Existing air capacity for long haul flights, the most difficult to replace with surface transport, could be utilised more effectively with an end to domestic flights and reduction in short-haul flights. Furthermore, the economic case for aviation expansion rests heavily on supposed ‘catalytic’ benefits, but all industries work with other businesses and can attract firms to an area. A high degree of investment and infrastructure provision in one area, of the type envisioned by the airport proposal, brings the likelihood that a considerable proportion of the economic activity will merely be displaced from elsewhere.

Aviation does not in itself make businesses more innovative or entrepreneurial, and we should enabling a transition to a lower carbon economy, an important aspect of which is reducing the environmental impact of transportation of goods. There are some successful initiatives for reducing business travel by replacing it with videoconferencing, such as programmes run by the WWF, and initiatives such as this should receive a higher level of support.

An airport on the Thames Estuary would have devastating, irreparable ecological impacts on a globally significant habitat for many species, most importantly hundreds of thousands of year-round and migratory birds. The area is also one of the few remaining habitats for many mammals such as water voles and rare species of bees. A number of Natura 2000 sites, an EU-wide network of nature protection areas, would be seriously affected.

In addition to land reclamation obliterating vast areas of habitat, remaining birds would be at risk from efforts to deter them from operational areas and flightpaths in order to reduce the risk of bird strikes, collisions with aircraft. It is estimated that the risk of bird strike for a Thames estuary airport could be 12 times higher than at the UK’s existing airports.

In the aftermath of the ‘Hudson miracle’ when a plane afflicted by a bird strike to both engines made a safe landing in the Hudson River, New York’s airport began to kill thousands of Canada geese, extending several kilometres away from the airport site. Now other species such as mute swans are on the kill list. Airports around the world are adopting a similar zero tolerance approach to bird life and are stepping up bird culling programmes. Yet, at New York’s airports, the mass killing of birds has failed to reduce the number of bird strikes. Even if an airport in the Thames Estuary adopts the most aggressive bird elimination programme, it is possible that the risk of a bird strike will still be significantly higher than at other UK airports.

I am pleased to add my voice to the wide range of community and environmental organisations that are vigorously opposing this airport project.

Rose Bridger

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