Luton Airport: Is sustainable growth possible?

Luton Borough Council (LBC) wants to increase the number of passengers using Luton Airport from 18 million to 38 million, but what impact would that have on St Albans?

Currently about 15 million passengers use Luton airport each year and the number is increasing. In 2011 only 9.5 million passengers passed through the airport. Under current planning conditions the airport is only permitted to handle 18 million passengers, a limit they will reach before 2020.

The Conservative government is keen for the airport to expand. In 2017 the government published a draft policy “Beyond the Horizon” that calls on airports to expand as much as they can without building any new runways. LBC then rushed to publish proposals to do just that.

The proposed growth would have a significant impact on local communities. While there are no plans for an additional runway, the increase in passenger numbers will mean more flights, by larger planes. It will also mean more journeys to and from the airport.

Impact on roads – although a new junction has been built on the M1, many passengers travel to the airport by car by other routes. Unless there is a significant shift in the means of travel there will be more cars on those routes through Hertfordshire. In 2016 almost half of all passengers travelled to Luton airport by private car. That excludes passengers who arrived by taxi, minicab or bus. There are no plans to build new roads and would we want more tarmac?

Impact on trains – in 2016 only 16% of passengers used the train to take the strain, a percentage that has remained fairly constant for the last 10 years. To reduce the impact on the roads, more passengers must be persuaded to switch to the train. However, there is a problem. Ask any resident who regularly travels to London and they will tell you the service is over-crowded.

Yet despite the above constraints, LBC wants to double the number of passengers.

Noise and air pollution – more passengers mean more planes and more planes mean more noise and air pollution. Luton airport has not addressed the impact on residents of the increase in flights since 2012. Also those flights are more concentrated following the introduction of technology (RNAV) that allows aircraft to follow flight paths more closely. This concentration has the effect of increasing the impact of noise rather than reducing it. In addition, figures released by the airport showed that 50% of planes were over 6,000ft at Sandridge in 2017, a decrease from 58% in 2014. So not only are there more planes, they are coming over at lower altitudes. This is in part due to the increase in flights to other London airports. We have some of the most crowded airspace in the world above us here in St Albans. This needs to be addressed before there is any further expansion. One possible solution would be the introduction of departure and arrival routes over Bedfordshire so that fewer planes flew over St Albans.

The government’s draft policy - Beyond the Horizon, does recognise that more needs to be done about noise, but comments on how difficult that will be - “However, there remains a challenge when technological improvements in noise reduction do not appear to be sufficient to deal with the negative impacts on some communities’ quality of life.” There are no proposals in the paper as to how those impacts will be resolved.

So far the government has paid lip service to local communities and shown determination to expand airports regardless of the environmental impact. We need to campaign to ensure that does not happen here.

John Hale, County Councillor for Colney Heath & Marshalswick

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