Jock Lowe: Support Heathrow – vote against the third runway

A protester outside the SNP's Aberdeen conference. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/Getty
A protester outside the SNP's Aberdeen conference. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/Getty
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Why should anyone in Scotland care about expansion at Heathrow Airport? There are two reasons. First, it has the potential to bring economic benefits through greater connectivity for Scottish airports to one of the world’s busiest aviation hubs. And second, because Scottish passengers will end up footing part of the cost.

The Westminster Parliament is expected to vote in the next few weeks to approve a third runway at Heathrow. The London media has reported that the SNP’s 35 members are going to vote in favour. I am not so sure and hope they do not do so. The reason is very simple. Scottish passengers face paying higher costs while receiving minimal benefits through more flights south.

Our Heathrow Hub consortium has developed an alternative, independent plan to extend Heathrow’s existing northern runway which delivers the same benefits but is cheaper, simpler, quieter and quicker to build. It can be built in phases: this means that regulators can halt expansion if environmental targets such as noise and air quality are threatened.

The SNP’s Alan Brown, MP, was absolutely right to question ministers in Westminster about supposed protection of 15 per cent of new slots created by expansion to be kept for domestic routes. This is a worthless promise. Heathrow Airport’s third runway proposal, which among other things involves demolishing three villages and British Airways’ headquarters, is so expensive that the expected doubling in passenger fees to £40 each will make many connections to Scottish airports uneconomic.

The official cost estimate, already four years old, for Heathrow Airport’s proposal is at least £14 billion to £17 billion. IAG, BA’s owner, estimates it could cost as much as £31bn and result in the doubling of passenger fees – already the most expensive in the world. Passengers will want not to fly there to make connections because it will be too expensive; airlines will not want to operate the routes because it will be impossible to make any money on them.

The Airports Commission and the Department for Transport have completely disregarded the significance of the cost of the third runway. They concluded that since it was privately financed, the cost was irrelevant, even though consumers will bear the cost through air fares for years to come. It is bad for the consumer and will suppress connectivity into Scotland.

We all want what is in the best interests of the entire UK. But is wrong for UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to insist that this decision has been reached through a fair, consistent and unbiased process. His department has allowed Heathrow to abuse its dominant market position at every turn, effectively vetoing our scheme, which was not only deemed viable by the Airports Commission, but has a full Safety Review (unlike Heathrow’s plan).

Heathrow Airport Ltd has even press-ganged the government into a “recovery clause” which potentially allows Heathrow Airport to recover the costs – running well into the tens or even hundreds of millions – of planning for and promoting its scheme, if it does not proceed. A similar offer was never extended to us. We have complained to the Competition and Markets Authority that by refusing to adopt our scheme, Heathrow Airport has abused its dominant market position.

Heathrow Hub has designed the extended northern runway scheme to be politically acceptable to all parties while recognising the concerns of local residents impacted by noise and air quality. Our Phase 1 would cost just £3.9bn, and deliver at least 70,000 extra flights per year, with no impact on passenger fees.

We have asked Mr Grayling to include our scheme alongside the third runway in the Airports National Policy Statement, which will form the basis of the debate and vote in Westminster. Even at this late stage, choosing our scheme would save time – it is four years quicker to build – avoiding the myriad legal challenges which will otherwise overtake Heathrow, and delivering economic benefits sooner.

The Conservative Government in Westminster may have made a grave mistake in taking the SNP for granted. The minds of the SNP are evidently far from made up on the subject, and their valid concerns must be taken seriously to ensure that airports expansion is beneficial for all, not just for a private company with mostly foreign shareholders in the south-east of England.

Jock Lowe is a director of Heathrow Hub