Event: A liberal approach to aviation - discussing airport expansion in Britain

24 March 2015

Speaking at the launch of the CentreForum report A liberal approach to aviation - discussing airport expansion in Britain were:

  • Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee Co-Chair for Transport Lord Bradshaw of Wallingford
  • Gatwick Airport Senior Public Affairs Manager Mark Lever
  • Liberal Democrat peer Lord Goddard of Stockport
  • Heathrow Hub Director Steve Costello
  • Let Britain Fly Director Gavin Hayes
  • CentreForum Director of Economic Policy and report author Tom Papworth

The event was chaired by CentreForum Associate Director Nick Tyrone.


Providing an overview of his report, Mr Papworth said that a crucial moment in the aviation expansion debate would come with the publication of the Airports Commission report.

He added that liberals tended to have a “blind spot” on the aviation debate, noting that the report would not deal with the location of any new runway in the South East.

Mr Papworth likened the argument over constructing a new runway to a trade-off of freedoms, including freedom of movement, liberty, equality and internationalism.

Governments should not restrict the ability of citizens to travel, he said, noting that the poorest would often be affected by any restrictions on air travel. Mr Papworth explained that any cap on the number of UK runways would push the price of air travel upwards.

He also extolled the benefits of aviation in fostering internationalism and affirming its position in helping Britons playing a role on the world stage, from protests to climate change negotiations.

Mr Papworth explained that there were many appealing economic reasons to support aviation expansion. He emphasised the economic contribution of the combined aviation sector of £32.2bn to UK GDP.

The aviation sector should be encouraged to expand to bring in more revenue for the Treasury, Mr Papworth said.

He cautioned against singling out aviation as a target for reducing emissions, calling for the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to be removed.

Capacity constraints led to stacking and increased time journeys, leading to both expanded and exported carbon emissions, Mr Papworth said. He added that technological improvements could be made to aircraft to reduce noise pollutions.

Governments had powers at their disposal to control environmental externalities.

Mr Papworth said that the argument for investing in a new runway outside of the South East was flawed because of the state’s lack of ability to direct private investment, a lack of capacity issues and demanding regional airports’ access to a hub.

Lord Bradshaw of Wallingford

Opening his remarks, Lord Bradshaw declared that any future government would consider the recommendations of the Davies Commission carefully.

He pledged that the Liberal Democrats would consider the “least worst option” on airport expansion that could be delivered quickly in the next Parliament.

Lord Bradshaw believed that his party’s activists held reservations over the environmental impact of expanding any airport, suggesting that airports could commit to introducing low emission zones.

Increased emissions would come from increasing numbers of ground vehicles travelling to an expanded airport, he said, calling for measures to be brought into change the refrigeration of units on aeroplanes.

Lord Bradshaw believed that a low emission zone would help drive technological innovations that could be used to help sell aviation expansion to climate change sceptics.

Connectivity also needed to be considered, the Liberal Democrat peer said, noting that Birmingham Airport would benefit from HS2 connecting it to London. He added that the rest of Britain needed to be connected to any expanded airport.

“When the new government comes in, you won’t get a swift decision. You will get the least worst option”, Lord Bradshaw said.

He believed that Gatwick was the best option for expansion and called for improvements in the rail link to make it easier for more people to access the airport.

Mark Lever

Praising the report, Mr Lever said that the trade-off of individual rights should take account of an airport’s location.

He declared that Gatwick offered a “more palatable solution” for airport expansion.

The number of new slots that could be delivered at Heathrow Airport was restricted owing to planning, but this was less of a case at Gatwick, Mr Lever said.

He called for the growth of competition in the aviation sector to continue, claiming that expanding Heathrow would entrench it within the market and squeeze out competitors.

Consumers would benefit from lower fares brought about by increased competition, Mr Lever said, rejecting the notion than an expanded Gatwick would lead to higher fares.

He set out that Gatwick performed better on environmental and noises indicators, which he said were already being breached around Heathrow. Tens of thousands more people would be affected by increased noise from an expanded airport in the west of London, he argued.

Lord Goddard of Stockport

Opening his remarks, Lord Goddard said that he served as a board member of Manchester International Airport for four years and outlined his role in securing the City Deal for the city.

He believed that CentreForum’s report underpinned the value of airports, noting that regional airports could be economic hubs.

Airport City had grown through private sector investment, Lord Goddard said, explaining that the Northern Powerhouse vision would be delivered around airports.

He called for connections to airports like Sheffield, Edinburgh or Manchester to be improved. A high speed rail link between Stansted and Manchester would help the latter move towards operating at full capacity.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority had paid for the metro and road links to the Airport and allowed the money to be reimbursed from the Treasury over a number of years, Lord Goddard said. He added the cost of infrastructure did not necessarily need to be met by central government.

Steve Costello

During his remarks, Mr Costello said that the aviation debate was about maintaining the UK’s economic competitiveness.

The Government had no control over the free market aviation sector, he said, noting that there had been a “steady attrition” of airlines moving from Gatwick to Heathrow when slots became available.

Mr Costello highlighted the benefits of Heathrow’s location, emphasising that any expansion of Gatwick would see the imposition of user charges that would eventually succeed its rival. He believed that the result would be greater pressure on Heathrow and a lack of demand for Gatwick.

The case for the Heathrow Hub would see existing flight paths maintained, and this supported the Davies Commission’s recommendation for an independent aviation noise regulator, Mr Costello said.

He agreed with Mr Papworth that the Government had the powers to act on air quality and added that it was important to maintain any competitive advantages in a challenging global market. 

Gavin Hayes

Explaining his campaign’s role, Mr Hayes said that Let Britain Fly aimed to build cross-party consensus for new aviation capacity in the South East, noting that the campaign did not back a particular airport.

He said that politicians should make a swift decision once the Davies Commission published its final recommendations.

There had been a breakthrough on the expansion debate with a number of interventions from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Energy Secretary Ed Davey in support of Gatwick, Mr Hayes said.

He noted that the issue of airport expansion needed cross-party support, referring to the attempted U-turn on Liberal Democrat aviation policy by the party’s membership at its 2014 Autumn conference.

Many activists in each of the three main parties had been concerned over the regional benefits of increasing the number of runways in the South East, Mr Hayes said. He noted that the number of UK destinations available from Heathrow had declined owing to a lack of capacity.

Mr Hayes said there were also concerns over climate change and aircraft noises, raising raised political questions. He cited the independent Committee on Climate Change as having ruled that a 60 per cent in increase UK runway capacity was compatible with emission targets.

The carbon footprint of the UK’s three biggest airport had fallen by three per cent since 2010, whilst passenger numbers had grown by five per cent, Mr Hayes explained. He felt that capping the number of runways was a “blunt instrument” for addressing environmental concerns.

Mr Hayes also pointed to improvements in aircraft technology that could help delivered bigger and quieter airports. He called for a “level-headed” and intelligent approach to the aviation expansion.


Portcullis Public Affairs Account Director Matthew Steiner asked if the Davies Commission process would be helped or hindered by a coalition or minority government.

In reply, Lord Bradshaw said that a hung parliament would make it difficult to reach a decision over the issue of aviation expansion. He noted that the Davies Commission report could be “laid on the shelf” because of the politics around the issue.

KPMG Public Policy Director David Gardner asked if the UK should be aiming to reduce the number of domestic flights to encourage a modal shift from air travel to rail and road.

He also inquired what Heathrow and Gatwick could do to improve surface connectivity.

Responding, Mr Hayes praised HS2 as an infrastructure project, but noted that the line would not come into operation until 2026 for Phase One and 2033 for Phase Two. 

Let Britain Fly had held roundtable discussions all over the country where business leaders had called for more direct flights from regional airports to Heathrow, he said. 

Mr Hayes called for additional slots from any new South East runway to be used to boost the number of domestic flights.

Heathrow External Affairs Director Nigel Milton asked why the Liberal Democrats had helped set-up the Davies Commission if there was a chance that they would ignore its recommendations.

Emphasising that a decision should be made on capacity, Lord Bradshaw called for the candidate airports to develop a radical solution to improve surface access. He explained that improving connectivity in the north would help improve the number of flights out of Manchester.

He did not believe that the Davies Commission report would be the final part of the story.

Adding to this, Mr Papworth said the market should be allowed to determine where airports expand.

Questioned over the level of noise versus the number of complaints made, Mr Costello said that many people chose to live under the Heathrow flight plan because of connectivity. He believed that an independent noise regulator would bring together the responsibilities current spread through several bodies.

Mr Costello believed it was important to encourage population density near airports to thin out. He also emphasised that concerns over air quality was not an exclusively local issue.

Following this, Mr Hayes said that many complaints over aviation noise were made by the same, small number of people, suggesting that the increase in the number could be attributed to this.

Mr Lever noted that Gatwick had attempted to be sensitive to noise pollution from airports.

Queried over the compatibility of aviation expansion with the devolution of transport powers to the city regions, Mr Lever said that it was important to move away from a “London-centric” view of accessing South East airports.

“The regions should be encouraged to provide as many direct routes as they can”, Mr Papworth said, insisting that capacity was only constrained in the South East.

Asked how the Liberal Democrat leadership could reconcile the difference of opinion with its activists over aviation expansion, Lord Bradshaw declared that Britain was a “complaining nation”.

He believed that many people raised concerns over the state of transport, believing that the regional airports had a lot to offer. Airports would have to take part in a “beauty parade” to convince the next Government over why they should receive the runway, Lord Bradshaw said.

Concluding remarks

Mr Costello insisted that airports were not “location agnostic” and described it as “madness” that the Government had decided not to proceed with a link to Heathrow Airport.

The UK had not built a new runway in the South East since the Second World War owing to politicians dithering on the issue, Mr Hayes declared, calling for political leaders to make a quick decision once the Davies Commission reported.

Mr Lever declared that Gatwick had put forward a strong case for maximising the economic benefit and minimising the environmental risk.

Mike Indian, Political Consultant
Mike Indian
Political Consultant

Mike Indian is Political Consultant and a member of DeHavilland’s Content team, leading on infrastructure and Scottish affairs. He leads on DeHavilland's dynamic content, specifically videos and podcasts, and regularly appears in the media as a political commentator. A graduate of Lancaster University, he has worked as a freelance journalist.