THE need for the expansion of Heathrow has been challenged by the three dioceses most directly affected by proposals for a third runway at the airport.
In a joint submission to the Government on the plans announced last October to build a new runway to the north of the present site, the dioceses of London, Oxford, and Southwark suggest that outside factors such as Brexit, international terrorism, and climate change could negate arguments that an increase in air traffic is necessary to sustain the British economy.
In an 11,000-word document compiled by the diocese of London’s Head of Environment and Sustainability, Brian Cuthbertson, the dioceses say that, while they stop short of outright opposition at this stage, they are posing “major questions and challenges on moral, social and environmental aspects”. They say that they are commenting “from a faith basis, and an ethical perspective: especially on the needs of the people of London, Buckinghamshire and West Sussex, whom the Church of England is committing to serving”.
While the proposals might prove economically beneficial, “they entail severe social and environmental impacts. Christians believe the environment to be God’s creation, over which we have a duty to take good care — which the Government is committed to doing. This is a spiritual and a moral question, to which the Government should give very great weight.”
The Church accepts that aviation is a British success story, important for industry, growth, and jobs, but it questions the claim that it is threatened by an impending “capacity crunch”. “Not all of the Government’s numerical claims are supported by evidence. Citing the huge capacity of UK aviation provision already is one thing, demonstrating that it needs to grow even more is another. Any opportunities and benefits of further growth are distinct questions from any need for growth in air travel or in GDP.
”It may be reasonable to foresee, on current trends, that the South East’s airports will ‘all be full by 2040’. But that will depend on changes in the wider world, including economic and security challenges, on Brexit — and on climate change.”
It continues: “Is Brexit more or less likely to stimulate demand than to respond to what may well turn out a decline in background demand? If the UK’s decision to leave the European Union adds further weight to the need for additional capacity, this is a self-inflicted problem, and not one for which Londoners voted.
”Furthermore, a question mark hangs over the feasibility of delivering multiple major infrastructure projects post-Brexit, if free movement of the construction workforce is to be curbed. . . The skilled and unskilled workforce required seem at odds with the likely impact on the construction industry of any restriction on foreign labour.”
The submission also contests the suggestion that the status of the UK as an international hub is challenged by restricted connectivity, and it faces growing competition from Middle Eastern hubs such as Dubai. “But is there really a need always to be the biggest? Why is Dubai in competition with Heathrow? It is a hub between Europe, Africa and Asia, whereas Heathrow connects also to the Americas.
”In short, we do not accept that the case has been made — not even for additional capacity in principle, especially against the background of Brexit.”
The report claims “significant weaknesses” in supporting documents to the consultation, particularly in relation to climate change. “Material presented is very uneven in content and quality. Much — e.g. on heritage and other local impacts — is simply missing. We are also struck by the threadbare treatment of the effects on the continuity and integrity of communities, on the historic environment, on habitats and health.”
There is also a sideswipe at the Government’s attitude to the project. “[Its] discourse is littered with the clichés of contemporary politics — ‘major step forward’, ‘building a global Britain’, ‘making the big decisions. . .’, ‘to forge a new role’, ‘a clear signal that Britain is open for business’, ‘an economy that works for everyone’. One is tempted to discern in this something of a cargo cult, in which the construction of a smart new runway will somehow magically deliver the goods.”