By Sarwar Alam
POLITICIANS and people must get behind the Heathrow expansion plan or risk losing business to European cities after Brexit, the head of the Back Heathrow campaign has said.
Parmjit Dhanda, a former Labour MP, said adding a new runway at Britain’s busiest airport will also create 77,000 jobs and 10,000 apprenticeships.
“This has the potential to end unemployment in the West London, Thames Valley area and make a huge difference for the country at a time of Brexit, as it will also create 180,000 jobs nationally,” Dhanda told Eastern Eye in an exclusive interview.
The proposed expansion of Heathrow includes two new terminals, Heathrow East and Heathrow West, and a two-mile long third runway that would increase the airport’s annual passenger capacity to 130 million a year.
In October 2016, prime minister Theresa May backed the Airports Commission’s recommendation to expand Heathrow Airport and the Conservative party committed to the policy in their election manifesto.
A four-month public consultation ended in May and the policy will go through further parliamentary scrutiny with a vote in the House of Commons expected in early 2018.
However, the final go-ahead for expanding Heathrow appears a long way off after the Conservative government’s position was severely weakened as a result of a hung parliament after the June general election.
Dhanda said: “We have been talking about a third runway for Heathrow for over 40 years without actually getting on and doing it.
“Brexit provides an additional imperative in actually providing the country with that actual long-term stability and I think it will be worth something like a £61 billion boost to the economy if we get on and build a runway.
“It’s really important we get our message across to our MPs to stop shilly-shallying. You know Brexit and the uncertainty with that is happening, we need to get on with this and do it. Around 70-75 per cent of MPs support the expansion, so sooner rather than later we need to accept the democratic process,” the former MP for Gloucester said.
Senior Conservative MPs such as foreign secretary Boris Johnson and education secretary Justine Greening have both also openly opposed the expansion of Heathrow.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling has admitted the June general election slowed the expansion process down, but reiterated that “the government is fully committed to realising the benefits that a new runway at Heathrow would bring, in terms of economic growth, boosting jobs and skills, strengthening domestic links and – critically – increasing and developing our international connectivity as we prepare to leave the European Union”.
Dhanda agreed with Grayling, saying: “Brexit has changed a lot of things in people’s minds. There is bigger focus than ever before on commerce, on the needs to have good connectivity with not just Europe, but with trade opportunity around the world, whether it’s Mumbai, Delhi, Shanghai, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Americas.
“It’s really important we build up every trading opportunity that we possibly can and if we look at Heathrow, it is one of the world’s biggest and busiest airports, but it’s 98 per cent full on its two runways.
“There is a real danger that we could start losing our trade for our long-haul flights to the likes of Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam who have three, four, five runways each.”
Opposition groups, such as the Stop Heathrow Expansion campaign, have fought against expansion plans over the years, citing air pollution, noise and demolition of up to 900 homes, including much of the village of Harmondsworth, as reasons a third runway should not be built.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has said a new runway at Heathrow “will be devastating for air quality across London – air pollution around the airport is already above legal levels of nitrogen dioxide”.
Khan, of the Labour party, added: “Heathrow already exposes more people to aircraft noise than Paris CDG, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Munich and Madrid combined. A third runway would mean an extra 200,000 people impacted, exposing 124 more schools and 43,200 more schoolchildren to an unacceptable level of noise.”
Dhanda offered a passionate defence against claims of an increase in air pollution, saying “the local air is in my lungs as someone who grew up there and it’s no interest of mine to poison my family members”.
He said: “Things have changed a lot since the 1970s when I was a kid and you could really hear the rumble of the aircraft. Since then, we have seen double the number of planes going to Heathrow but we have also seen a reduction by 90 per cent of people being effected by noise. That’s because technology has moved on, aircraft have become quieter, and they have become cleaner. The next generation (of airliners) are becoming cleaner and quieter still.
“There is a valid concern over air quality around the airport. The 100,000 local people who want to see the expansion for the opportunities it will create, also want to see cleaner air and a control on noise. In terms of reduction of CO2, there are some inventive plans coming forward that will make a huge difference in terms of reduction of CO2.
“There is going to be massive investment in public transport around Heathrow which will help reduce CO2. We got Crossrail coming through. We have got the HS2 well on the way. We have new services coming in from the south and the west. We have huge advances on the improvement on the Piccadilly Line. So we should see a huge reduction in the number of journeys required to Heathrow from diesel vehicles that are causing the pollution.”
As for homes that will make way for the expansion, Dhanda said it was “unfortunate” but revealed that “the compensation package would be 25 per cent more than the value of the houses, stamp duty will be paid on new homes as well as help with legal fees”.
He added that from the surveys he has seen, more people in and around Heathrow support the expansion than oppose it.
Hotelier Surinder Arora, founder and chairman of the Arora Group, recently submitted his own proposals for a third runway and new terminal at Heathrow, which he claims would be £6.7bn cheaper than the airport’s current scheme and would involve less disruption to local communities as a smaller amount of land would be required.
Dhanda was quick to dismiss Arora’s plans, saying they had ‘come in at the last stage without any level of scrutiny that all the other plans have had’ and as a result wouldn’t be taken seriously.
For Dhanda, Heathrow is close to his heart as several family members, including his grandfather, worked at the airport.
He acknowledged that Heathrow had a large Asian work force since the the 1960s when people from the sub-continent arrived and settled in areas surrounding the airport. He hoped for an increase in British Asian employees at Heathrow with the creation of the new jobs.
“Heathrow has a very diverse workforce, a very high proportion of people from Asian background. My ambition is not just to grow those jobs, but there is a whole other generation now who want the more skilled jobs as engineers, as IT people. With the new skills academies and apprenticeships, it is a great opportunity for the local diverse community,” Dhanda said.