Lift-off! A new runway for a ‘global Britain’

After more than 50 years of political squabbling, the British government is finally publishing plans for Heathrow’s third runway. A furious debate is in full flow. Is it the right decision?

It was described as ‘truly momentous’ by some and ‘catastrophic’ by others. The arguments over how to expand London’s air travel capacity were debated for decades. In October, the dispute finally came to an end, as the government approved plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

Yesterday the government published its proposals for the runway for public consultation. The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, told the House of Commons that expanding the airport would show that the UK is ‘open for business’ after Brexit.

In an interview with Radio 4’s Today programme, Grayling suggested that new routes to emerging markets like China would become viable once the runway is built.

The decision provided a major headache for the Conservative Party: Boris Johnson, while Mayor of London, said he would ‘lie down in front of the planes’ to prevent a third runway. For years, local residents and environmentalists opposed the extra noise and air pollution the expansion would bring.

Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park, eight miles from Heathrow, stood down in reaction to the decision, standing as an independent in the resulting by-election which he then lost to the Liberal Democrats.

However, a third runway could allow for a ban on all Heathrow flights between 11.30pm and 6am, making the airport a ‘better neighbour’ than it is now. That, along with its convenient location, led to one report in 2015 calling it ‘the clear and unanimous choice’.

There has long been pressure from business to expand London’s flight capacity; the director-general of CBI said that the government must get ‘diggers in the ground’ by 2020. Heathrow is the UK’s major hub for international travel, competing with airports like Paris and Dubai. An extra runway could contribute billions to the economy.

Other suggestions, such as building a second runway at Gatwick or expanding a regional airport like Birmingham in order to counter London’s economic pre-eminence have fallen by the wayside. Did the government get it right?

Fly away

Expanding Heathrow will be a huge boost to British industry, argue business leaders. It will encourage investment in the UK and open new trade routes to the growing markets in countries like China and Brazil. This is a simple question of supply and demand: more people travel than ever before, therefore more runways are needed than ever.

But environmentalists are firm: this is a terrible idea. Hundreds of people will lose their homes, and green fields will disappear. Heathrow will become the largest centre for CO2 emissions in the UK. Aviation is one of the worst contributors to climate change; we should be cutting our number of flights, not increasing them.

You Decide

  1. Do you agree with plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport?
  2. Can we ever solve the environmental problem posed by aviation?


  1. Design a new airport for Britain in the 21st Century. Does it have any special features? How does it address environmental concerns?
  2. Produce a timeline showing the key moments in the history of aviation and the impact they had on the rest of the world.

Some People Say...

“Air travel once represented the future of humanity. Now it could be its undoing.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this matter to anyone outside of London?
Those in favour of the decision argue that it will benefit the whole of the UK, as any boost to the economy is good for the entire population. Naturally, families and businesses located elsewhere will still be able to make use of the international flights to 40 new destinations.
Why did this take so long?
The government first proposed a new airport in the capital city in 1968 and many different options have been suggested, accepted and subsequently abandoned since then. Even though the decision has now been made, it will take years to build. Runways are surprisingly complicated constructions, as they need to withstand extremely heavy aeroplanes landing at high speeds over many years. Build it poorly, and it will soon need repairs.

Word Watch

Heathrow Airport
Located in the far west of London, Heathrow is the third busiest airport in the world, behind Dubai International and Hong Kong International. It originated in 1929 as a small airfield called the Great West Aerodrome and officially opened as ‘London Airport’ in 1946.
Zac Goldsmith
Goldsmith ran as the Tory candidate for last year’s London mayoral election, being defeated by Labour’s Sadiq Khan, who became the first Muslim mayor of a British capital city.
The Confederation of British Industry is a ‘business lobbying organisation’ which aims to represent the interests of industries and employers in the UK.
CO2 emissions
Aeroplanes have large Carbon dioxide emissions, partly because they travel such long distances. The executive director of Greenpeace has warned that a Heathrow expansion would ‘jeopardise the UK’s climate targets’.


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