UK ‘paralysed by protest’ amid airport fury

Pack it in: Campaign group HACAN protest against Heathrow expansion outside parliament. © PA

The British government has approved a new runway at Heathrow airport. But years of political and legal wrangles now await. Have the opponents of new building projects gained too much power?

It is the busiest airport in Europe. Eight years ago, it opened a successful new terminal. In 2015, 75m passengers passed through it.

Now the UK government wants Heathrow to expand further. Yesterday Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, announced plans to build a third runway at the London hub. He called the decision ‘truly momentous’.

An extra runway at Heathrow was first suggested 67 years ago. Business groups say expansion will create jobs at an airport which is near capacity , and fit a global trend. But environmentalists say the plans will create unreasonable pollution; some local residents fear traffic and noise will increase.

There was a swift backlash to the decision yesterday from Conservative MPs with constituencies near the airport. One, Zac Goldsmith, resigned; cabinet members Boris Johnson and Justine Greening took the extraordinary decision to condemn their own government.

A long fight lies ahead: construction is unlikely to begin until at least 2020. An uncertain parliamentary vote and a series of legal challenges could delay the first takeoffs further.

Some are disenchanted by the hold-up. Matt Ridley, a commentator for the Times, says the UK is becoming ‘paralysed by protest’. A ‘timid state’, he argues, has given too much quarter to protest movements which delay infrastructure projects and drive up their costs. And yesterday Ross Clark wrote in The Spectator that ‘activists, barristers and unelected judges now hold the reins in Britain’.

A proposed high-speed rail line between London and the north of England has faced similar legal obstacles. There are ongoing cases against a nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point.

And energy firm Cuadrilla has spent almost a decade applying for permission to drill a single well in Lancashire, in the search for shale gas. Meanwhile, Ridley says, the USA has used fracking to ‘smash the oil and gas price, transform its economy and cut its carbon emissions’.

So should the UK bring the diggers in as soon as possible?

Hot air?

Get on with it, cry proponents. Special interest groups may shout loudly but they do not speak for the public. An elected government must be able to take decisions without having to satisfy everyone or waste money on lawyers. A misanthropic environmental movement and local residents with no viable alternative are holding the country to ransom.

Not so fast, others respond. The delays serve a vital purpose: every opinion must be heard fairly before building starts. MPs, pressure groups and locals are airing a strong case against these projects and holding decision makers to account. Democracy does not just mean a government can use a majority in parliament to do what it wants.

You Decide

  1. Would you like an airport near you to expand?
  2. Should the UK build a third runway at Heathrow as soon as possible?


  1. Write a one-page letter to your MP, explaining whether you think they should vote for airport expansion or against it.
  2. Think of an issue in your local area where the need for infrastructure has conflicted with environmental concerns. Interview at least two local people with knowledge on the subject. Report what you found back to your class. Did your interviewees change your view on the issue?

Some People Say...

“Saying no is not a solution.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I never fly. Isn’t this an issue for other people?
An expanding airport might open up more routes and make flying cheaper, allowing you to fly more often. But even if not, new investment could help you to get a job; an airport near you might create extra noise and pollution. You might be concerned by the impact of our species’ carbon footprint, or worry that governments are not able to do their job — a problem which could affect any major project you care about.
I’m not from the UK. Is this an issue elsewhere?
It is even more of an issue in many other countries. For example, Istanbul is spending $36.2bn on a new airport. In the Asian Pacific, the Middle East and Africa, airports are expanding rapidly. This is likely to pressure countries elsewhere to follow suit. And any government in a democracy keen to start major building work could face similar controversy.

Word Watch

According to the Airports Council International. Atlanta airport had the most traffic, with 101.4m passengers.
The Airports Commission says the new runway will create up to 180,000 jobs in the UK and have a £211bn economic benefit, thanks to more working visits and tourism. The UK’s decision to leave the EU has made such concerns more urgent.
Heathrow currently operates at 98% of its capacity — much more than its European competitors — and the UK’s population is growing.
According to business information service Timetric, $639bn (around £500bn) is currently being spent on airport expansion projects worldwide, despite a sluggish world economy.
A recent study by the University of Cambridge said Heathrow could expand without breaking EU pollution regulations. But in 2013 aviation caused over 6% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Committee on Climate Change.
Campaigning group Greenpeace and local residents plan to bring a judicial review against the decision. And yesterday Nic Ferriday of Friends of the Earth promised to ‘fight it every step of the way’.


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