Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


China, hard times spur vigorous new push to expand Heathrow

Britain’s Conservative Party wants to kickstart the economy and provide more routes to China. But Prime Minister Cameron’s own coalition partners — and many environmentalists — are pushing back.

Back in 2010, environmental activists and west London suburbanites living under the flight path of European’s busiest airport rejoiced when plans to expand Heathrow were blocked by Britain’s new coalition government.

But as the coalition searches two years later for a way to kickstart a sluggish economy, the push for expansion is back with a vengeance — with new pressure from within the ranks of the Conservative Party emerging as the latest existential threat to the fragile alliance with their Liberal Democrats partners.

According to campaigners for the controversial construction of a third runway at the airport, Britain is falling behind European rivals in the battle for lucrative routes to China because of constraints on Heathrow’s growth. The case was ratcheted up Wednesday by an aviation umbrella group of Members of Parliament from all main parties that claimed the restrictions were harming Britain’s economic potential.

Think you know Europe? Take our geography quiz!

Article continues after advertisement

A senior Conservative politician, who reignited the issue earlier this week with a call for Prime Minister David Cameron to show “whether he is man or mouse,” alleged the problem is so acute that the Chinese government itself is also pressing for more slots at Britain’s flagship airport.

“An immediate go-ahead for a third runway will symbolize the start of a new era, the moment the Cameron government found its sense of mission,” Tim Yeo, chairman of the House of Commons energy committee, wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

Mr. Yeo, a former opponent of expansion who now argues that European Union carbon emissions caps will force airlines to use more environmentally friendly planes, said there was no direct links to three Chinese cities with 50 million inhabitants between them, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Wuhan.

Jeremy Clegg, an expert on trade relations with China based at the University of Leeds, said the Chinese-British relationship was full of potential: “Although it does have some world class manufacturing, Britain doesn’t have the technological lead of a country like Germany, which is much admired by the Chinese because it is precisely the type of industry China wants to get into.

“That said, the Chinese are attracted toward Britain as an easy place to do business in terms such as transparency and rule of law. So if Heathrow expansion was based on the hypothesis of linking up with emerging markets like China, because they are the only growth markets, given the situation in the European Union, then it is probably the most powerful argument for that expansion.” 

Yet resistance remains staunch, not least from inside the Tory Party itself. Justine Greening, the Transport secretary, remains adamantly opposed to a third runway at Heathrow, where the flight path runs over her constituency. However, it is with his Liberal Democrat partners that the greatest potential for friction lies for Mr. Cameron.

Amid reports that Ms. Greening’s position could lead to her departure in a cabinet reshuffle next month to pave the way for a Cameron u-turn, the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, flew to her aid Tuesday, vowing that the coalition would “stick to” its agreed policy of blocking a third runway.

The potential loss of green-oriented voters is one consideration for consideration for Mr .Clegg.As put by John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK:

“Airport expansion would lead to a rise in noise, pollution, community destruction as well as greenhouse gas emissions.”

Article continues after advertisement

Clegg, who needs to show that the smaller coalition party isn’t a pushover, also hinted that he may be in the mood for a morale-boosting row with the Tories when he called Tuesday for an “emergency tax” on Britain’s wealthiest.