The cabinet reshuffle has thrust the issue of Heathrow’s third runway back into the limelight, with some suggesting Cameron’s moves signal an about turn in the Coalition’s pre-election pledge not to expand the airport.
The Heathrow debate has not been drawn along party lines, with politicians from all sides of the chamber throwing in their two cents. On one side, proponents believe the third runway could provide much needed growth, while those against it cite noise, air pollution and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
As politicians divide themselves over this issue, Monday’s British Social Attitudes Report (BSA) sheds light on what the public really thinks. For several years, we’ve asked people about their views on transport’s environmental impact and in particular, airport expansion.
First, we asked if people should be free to fly as much as they like, with which 62% agreed. Then, when we added, ‘even if new terminals or runways are needed’, the figure dropped to 37%. Not only does this show a considerable majority against expansion, but also a shift in attitude; back in 2003, 52% supported the freedom to fly whenever, regardless of airport expansion. So for many, unlimited air travel no longer warrants building more airport space.
More widely, it seems there is some sympathy with the environmental position, with two-thirds agreeing that “the current level of air travel has a serious effect on climate change”. However, we uncovered an interesting contrast in people’s attitudes toward changing their own travel behaviour. 40% said they would be willing to minimise driving to reduce climate change, but just 24% were prepared to travel less by plane. Perhaps sacrificing the annual holiday is one step too far for the British public.
BSA clarifies the complexity of this debate. People are aware of travel’s impact of on the environment and there is a general willingness to make small behavioural changes, though less so in relation to flying. And if there is to be an increase in foreign travel, airports will need greater capacity. One thing we can be sure of is that the debate will continue in the run-up to and beyond the election. The electoral landscape surrounding Heathrow’s third runway, both physically and ideologically, is delicate and undecided.