Jane Hammett puts the threatened future of Oglet Shore in context, in a sequel to her last piece Liverpool’s Last Remaining Countryside: Destroyed For Airport Expansion, written in light of the current pandemic and its likely impact on the aviation industry.
With Covid 19, the importance of green, outdoor space has been catapulted centre stage, promoted and well understood by Government, Councils and Citizens alike for the lifeline it provides.
As we emerge from the first wave of the Covid-19 Pandemic, many have had time to reflect on the sort of world which will exist in the future, and whether, after this life-changing episode, we want to return to the “old normal,” especially with regard to air travel. The industry had a catastrophic year in 2019, even before the emergence of Covid-19. Following two fatal airline disasters, killing a total of 346 people, Boeing was forced to ground its 737 Max. With airline operators like Ryanair keen to delay the planned delivery of its 135 models, 5 due this Autumn, they are hoping that renaming the stricken plane will calm fears. Locked down and cash strapped airlines are reluctant to spend and are instead in a financial tussle with producers, who continue with manufacture. Either way, the future looks bleak for airlines, with Ryanair and EasyJet recently announcing thousands of job cuts. Who knows how long these budget airlines will fly from Liverpool? Establishing a transatlantic service seems even more far-fetched than ever with a worldwide recession looming.
Undoubtedly, aviation has been the main driver in the global spread of Covid-19 and international flight restrictions look set to remain. Leisure flight operators exist on a tight profit margin with a “Pile them high; sell them cheap” business model. With the necessary social distancing measures threatening profit margins, cheap package holiday flights might be a thing of the past. Concerns over virus transmission, and uncertain personal finances, mean it is likely to be some time before passenger numbers return to pre-virus levels. Taking this into account, even the future of well established airports is precarious. With over 80% of flights undertaken for leisure, the owners of British Airways predict it will be 2023 before demand returns. In fact, British Airway’s chief executive admits it could be almost 15 years before the UK economy recovers sufficiently to make a third runway at Heathrow viable. The future of Gatwick, facing the withdrawal of Virgin Atlantic, a much reduced Norwegian Air fleet and uncertainty over BA’s business, also lies in the balance.
Before the onset of the pandemic, environmental concerns were the major objection to airport expansion plans. With CO2 emissions from UK aviation rising to new heights in 2019 and predicted to constitute up to 35% by 2050, increased concerns about the Climate Crisis led many to question whether the UK Government should act to limit its growth. Indeed, as signatories to the 2016 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, their support for the Heathrow expansion was judged to be unlawful. The Industry has, until now, led a largely unregulated and subsidised existence, enjoying significant Government bailouts based on overstated estimates of its contribution to the economy. In fact, it contributes less than 0.7% of GDP and only 0.4% of jobs and has been shown to cater for a small minority of the population: 15% of people take 70% of the flights. Given this, aviation subsidies should be reviewed and ticket prices upped to reflect the true cost to the environment and to the health of society.
It will come as no surprise to some that the Aviation Industry is determined to press ahead with expansion plans, with Heathrow and Gatwick still planning to increase capacity, and in our own City, the Council hopes the Inspector will give the green light for Liverpool Airport’s development. Yet with the radical change to people’s “normal” behaviour and lifestyles forced on us by the pandemic, will the Airline Industry ever be the same again? Will changed values, concerns about future pandemics, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the Climate Crisis blow a lethal hole in the argument for the unrestricted growth of air travel? Those with vested interests want to press ahead, predicting a return to old travel habits, but will the financial backers see it as a viable investment?
With airlines seeking bailouts from the Government, now is the time to ensure the industry is held to account, and to recognise its true costs in terms of its impacts on public health and the environment, and the inherent risks involved in unrestricted global travel. The subsidies and tax exemptions enjoyed in the past must be ended and regulations laid down ensuring the industry works towards meeting our Paris climate targets. Investment in more sustainable forms of transport should be prioritised and all of the planned expansions stopped.
Closer to home, the Independent Inquiry into the Liverpool Draft Local Plan takes place in August. The Government appointed inspector, David Spenser, will be asking whether, “exceptional circumstances” exist to justify removing Green belt protection from The Oglet, especially as it is “functionally linked” to the Mersey Estuary, an area which is of International importance for wildlife. Will Mayor Anderson’s friends at the Airport be able to deliver the promised thousands of jobs and boost to the Liverpool economy outlined in their Masterplan, that he thinks justifies this, in the economic climate outlined above? And will he be forced to give up this vanity project, that not only goes against agreed goals on climate change and sustainability, but will hand over this last bit of countryside to Peel Holdings to destroy at their will? The Independent inspector will decide and I look forward to giving my evidence, alongside others who are opposed to the Plan.