Field Notes

Why plans to expand Heathrow Airport cannot fly

'Not in my backyard' culture exacts high costs in building delays, including for new homes

LONDON • Britain's Heathrow Airport is bursting at the seams. Europe's busiest and the world's third-largest air hub handles 73.5 million passengers a year and, at 98 per cent of capacity now utilised, Heathrow has run out of landing slots.

Its two runways were constructed back in the 1950s, in an age when only the fabulously rich used air travel and ordinary folk went to the airport just to marvel at the sight of planes. If nothing is done to expand facilities, Heathrow will soon be overtaken by Germany's Frankfurt airport which has three runways, Paris which has four, or Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, which boasts no fewer than six runways.

So, the answer from British planners should be self-evident: Since their government is determined to maintain the country's lead in the civilian aviation sector which contributes around £10 billion (S$21 billion) to the national economy and provides jobs for a quarter of a million people, new terminals and new runways need to be built fast.

Yet Heathrow's Terminal 5, its latest, took two decades to build because the opposition to its construction resulted in the longest planning dispute in British legal history; just moving the paperwork generated by that dispute required a truck.

With Heathrow Airport bursting at the seams, the logical solution would be to build new terminals and runways quickly. Yet plans for expansion have invariably faced opposition because people expect cheap, efficient transport facilities but somehow want this to be done on someone else's land. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

And a recent recommendation by a special commission which took three years and spent £20 million to come to the remarkable conclusion that Heathrow needs a third runway is certain to fare even worse. For it will be at least six more months before the laborious business of legal challenges to this proposal begins and, even if all the disputes are resolved, the optimistic assumption is that a new runway won't materialise before 2026. By comparison, China plans to build 55 new airports during that time span.

It is understandable that local residents should fear the increased noise and pollution levels which could result from Heathrow's expansion. But what protesting residents don't like to dwell upon is the fact that they initially bought their homes around the airport at a huge discount, precisely because of their location under a flight path and that they frequently benefit from special allowances... In short, pocketing the financial advantages for a burden which they don't want to bear.


The culprit in all these huge delays is not necessarily a lack of British expertise, but the so-called Nimby, "not-in-my-backyard" culture, which permeates almost every project of this kind in Britain.

People expect good public services, a prosperous economy and cheap, efficient transport facilities, but somehow want this to be done away from their sight, and on someone else's land.

Nimbyism is all the rage in Britain: Simon Jenkin, one of the country's top media commentators, even penned an ode of praise for the concept. "Bravo for Nimbyism," he wrote, rejecting accusations that Nimbyism is just a more polite term for hypocrisy.

Nimbyism has haunted Heathrow since its inception during the dark days of World War II. The official explanation for the construction of the airport was that it was needed for the long-range bombers aiming at enemy Japan. But, as the minister responsible for the project was to admit decades later, this was a brazen lie. For, as part of its post-war planning, the British government decided to create a civilian airport in London but, anticipating the opposition, it simply opted to ram the project through by pretending that it was a military necessity. And so the airport which started as a lie continues its surreal existence.

It is understandable that local residents should fear the increased noise and pollution levels which could result from Heathrow's expansion. But what protesting residents don't like to dwell upon is the fact that they initially bought their homes around the airport at a huge discount, precisely because of their location under a flight path, and that they frequently benefit from special allowances designed for installation of double-glazing for windows, and other insulation devices to reduce noise levels. In short, residents are pocketing the financial advantages for a burden which they don't want to bear.

Furthermore, surveys indicate that people living around London are far more likely to fly to foreign destinations than the average Briton. So, the anti-Heathrow protesters certainly like planes and the plentiful airline connections London offers; they'd just prefer to have the airport which provides such connections in someone else's backyard.

And politicians listen to such specious protests because London accounts for around 90 parliamentary constituencies, with many of them belonging to the ruling Conservative party. That's why the issue of Heathrow remains so toxic in British politics and why most governments would rather not make any decision about the airport.


Nor is Heathrow an isolated example of Britain's Nimbyism. Most of the country's jails were built during the 19th century and are literally crumbling.

"Our current prison estate is out-of-date, overcrowded and, in far too many cases, insanitary and inadequate," Justice Minister Michael Gove admitted this week.

But building new prisons in cities - considered essential to facilitate visits by families of inmates - is a sheer impossibility. As a result, Pentonville prison in north London, for example, which was built in 1842 to hold a maximum of 900 inmates, now houses more than 1,300 in filthy, crowded conditions. Local residents would, no doubt, be delighted to see Pentonville demolished, but won't hear of the construction of a new jail in its stead.

Nimbyism also rules supreme when it comes to electricity generation. According to a study on the country's energy future compiled by Cardiff University in Wales, no less than 82 per cent of Britons favour wind power; the wind turbines with their tall masts and shiny propellers are the object of affection for every touchy-feely "green" British voter, and pictures of these turbines grace every government environmental publication. But try to put one of these wind turbines in any British village, and all hell will break loose. Most of those opposing the turbines complain not only about the eyesore pylons but also about the supposed cruelty of the propellers to animals. "They kill bats by exploding their little lungs; they frighten horses with an effect known as 'shadow flicker'," claims Alexander Chancellor, one of Britain's top journalists. Most of these windmills are now being built offshore: The costs are far higher, but the fish can't complain.

Yet the most egregious case of Nimbyism relates to housing. Britain lags behind all of Europe in home construction. Annual housing construction fell from 350,000 units in 1970 to 160,000 in 1990 and only 120,000 now, at a time when planners claim the country needs at least 250,000 new homes each year.

And the chief reason for this is stiff opposition from existing home owners, who don't want developments which may reduce the prices of their own properties. The latest trick among such Nimbies is not just to oppose house construction plans, but to table alternative neighbourhood development proposals designed to scare away developers. A recent study by Turley, a company which helps British investors to identify construction sites, has found that out of 75 published neighbourhood plans, more than half are pure inventions such as proposed sports clubs or community centres which will never be built, but which can act as a good smokescreen to resist housing development.

More significantly, the same study also found that 75 per cent of these fake neighbourhood proposals emerge from the wealthy parts in the south of England, precisely where house shortages are most acute. So, the well-off are not only protecting their areas from new homes; they are also pushing undesirable developments into poorer neighbourhoods.

And throughout this cynical game, the voices of the homeless and badly housed remain unheard. Many British MPs are not prepared to fight the battle: Depressing house prices in one's own parliamentary constituency is not exactly a recipe for re-election.

At long last, the British government has decided to fight Nimbyism at the highest level. Prime Minister David Cameron has established a special parliamentary committee to decide on Heathrow's expansion; the committee includes no local MPs around the airport, and reports directly to the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, finance minister George Osborne has just announced sweeping reforms of house-building procedures, under which the local authorities will be sidelined and automatic permission be given for house construction in designated areas. But the army of lawyers who make a living out of Nimbyism and the millions of ordinary Britons who engage in this sport are guaranteed to continue with their antics.

And Nimbyism has a long and distinguished pedigree in Britain. For, although the term itself was invented only in 1980, the first and original British Nimby was a certain Elizabeth Russell, who more than 400 years ago in 1596 used her formidable persuasive skills to collect signatures from her neighbours on a petition against the construction of a local theatre which, she claimed, will "clog up the narrow rickety streets with carriages, not to mention the manure from all the horses".

She won her protest, and William Shakespeare, the man who planned to build the theatre, was chased away to another part of London. British history, it appears, favours Nimbies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2015, with the headline 'Why plans to expand Heathrow Airport cannot fly'. Subscribe