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The pros and cons of airport expansion

Friday 19 December 2003

Our countryside commentator John Sheard explains why he is a reluctant supporter of expansion at Leeds-Bradford airport

THIS week's announcement of a huge expansion programme for Leeds-Bradford airport is, I admit, a difficult one for me to absorb. As a committed environmentalist, I should be agin it. But as a frequent traveller, I welcome it with open arms.

So once again, I find myself sitting down and trying to weigh the balance between "nimbysm" - the not in my backyard syndrome - and the understanding that country folk have a right to make a living, a right that has become much more difficult to achieve since the beginning of this young new century.


If plans announced by Transport Secretary Alistair Darling on Tuesday go through, passenger numbers from Yeadon will more than triple to some seven million a year in the next 30 years - which will obviously mean a lot more flights.

Residents living near the airport are, understandably, furious about increased noise and traffic and environmental pressure groups like Friends of the Earth and the CPRE are up-in-arms about the pollution which air-travel most certainly causes: it is one of the biggest creators of greenhouse gases, for instance.

On the other hand, there are thousands of Yorkshire businessmen and women who are delighted with the plan. Some of those are involved in the tourist industry in the Yorkshire Dales which, with agriculture in sharp decline, has become a staple of the local economy whether we like it or not.

These are the people who have had the wit to study trends in tourism on the European mainland. The mass package holiday operators are in a dreadful state, losing hundreds of millions of pounds - yet there has been a steady growth in smaller scale, independent tourism often involving the use of smaller, regional airports.

The people who take that sort of holiday tend to be the more sophisticated (and better off), exactly the type of tourist we should be attracting to the Dales. And with Yeadon on the doorstep, getting here couldn't be easier.

I am a frequent flyer not just by choice. My son and his family live and work in South East Asia and my wife likes to see the grandchildren as often as possible. We also take one short holiday a year, often to the Greek Islands - via a tiny local airport. Sadly, we have to fly there from Manchester, where parking costs an arm and a leg and a taxi more. Jumping into a cab for Yeadon would make life much less tedious.

These, I admit, are selfish reasons but there are thousands - nay millions - of Britons who are taking to the air in ever increasing numbers. Travel is in this nation's blood - how else would we have built the biggest Empire the world has ever known?

The growth in air traffic is, therefore, inevitable. So what can we do to make it more environmentally acceptable?

I have to admit, for a start, that I do not have a great deal of sympathy for the people who complain constantly of airport noise: they bought a house near an airport so what did they expect? There are grants available for sound-proofing measures and modern aircraft are much quieter. The number of extra flights will not go up in proportion to passenger numbers because aircraft are also getting much bigger.

More serious, in the long run, is air pollution and global warming and this the government - indeed, the world's governments - should be tackling head-on by bringing in legislation to force engine designers to concentrate of greater fuel efficiency.

At present, there is no tax on aviation fuel, which must seem distinctly odd to country folk forced to pay through the nose for petrol because there is no public transport. So there should be international agreement to impose such a tax which would, of course, be passed onto the traveller. That in itself might reduce the number of cheap package tours to the Costas.

All the money raised this way should be ring-fenced to be spent on anti-pollution measures on the ground and, yes, some of it should be given to residents near to airports to further improve sound-proofing. Better access to airports would also cut the pollution caused by traffic jams.

Not a bad idea, that. Trouble is, what government has ever ring-fenced a new tax? The new millions raised would no doubt be squandered on politically more fashionable schemes. This is the real problem of increased air travel. Don't hold your breath awaiting the solution.

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