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Exclusive interview: Heathrow’s Nigel Milton

by Marco Cillario Fri 5 August 2016, 1:04 pm

Nigel Milton, director of external affairs at Heathrow Airport, talks exclusively with Great West magazine about the potential airport expansion.

Nigel Milton, Heathrow Airport's director of external affairs

Why do you consider Heathrow airport’s expansion, with the creation of a third runway, important for the UK?

With the British voters’ decision to quit the European Union, it becomes more important for the UK to be at the centre of the global economy, to look outside Europe, and Heathrow is the country’s most globally connected airport: 29% of non-EU exports go through this airport, and we are at capacity, so we need to be expanding. But we also have domestic services all around the UK, from Scotland to Northern Ireland, and with the expansion we would be able to add even more routes, and this is important not just for London but for the whole country.

And couldn’t this be done by expanding another airport, such as Gatwick?

Gatwick is a great airport, but it has a different function. Unlike Gatwick, Heathrow serves trade – the amount of exports going through this airport is 150 times the amount going through Gatwick. And, unlike Gatwick, Heathrow connects to the whole country. 

In more detail, how is Britain leaving the European Union going to affect Heathrow and its possible expansion? 

With Brexit, the UK’s relations with extra-EU countries become even more important – and 80% of long distance route flights are from Heathrow. The country needs to be sending a clear message to the rest of the world: that we are open to business and we are not becoming introverted as a result of Brexit. Heathrow is a global brand, a brand by which the UK is identified all over the world, and if we want to be sending a message to the world that the UK is open for business, we need to expand the airport which is our symbol. 

What was your reaction to former transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin’s announcement in June that the decision on the airport expansion was to be delayed until at least October?

We were prepared for that, so by the time of the announcement we were not particularly surprised. We are disappointed, of course: the airport commission gave a unanimous judgement in July 2015, backing the airport’s expansion. On the other hand, we do understand that there is a new prime minister, Theresa May, a new government and a new transport secretary, Chris Grayling, so they need to look at the commission’s report themselves and see with their eyes the work that we have done. We accept that they need time to make sure the commission has come to the right conclusion, and we want the decision on Heathrow’s expansion to be a robust decision, taken in the right way.

Do you think the chances of Heathrow’s expansion being given the green light have increased or decreased with the change in government?

We are confident that after looking into the commission’s report and realising that we have done the work that needed to be done, the government will agree with the commission. What the new prime minister, Theresa May, hasn’t done is gone public with a statement against Heathrow.

She did say she wanted a better Heathrow, not a bigger Heathrow.

But that statement was made in 2009, before we revised our plan for the airport expansion in 2014, and before the airport commission confirmed what we had been saying: that in order to have a better Heathrow you need to have a bigger Heathrow.

Yet some residents are worried about possible negative effects on the environment due to the expansion. How do you respond to these concerns?

Residents and councils raised important points: that is why we came up with a new plan. We listened to their concerns carefully and responded by producing a revised project. And the important thing is that the airport commission found that the air pollution will be within the legal limit and it has been clear in the report that Heathrow is able to present a better noise plan as a result of the expansion than without it.

But how can an expanded Heathrow, with more planes travelling to and from it, reduce noise pollution and how can it not affect air quality?

We are going to extend the closure at night time, introducing a ban on flights between 11pm and 5.30am, and in the revised plan we moved the runway further west and made it longer, which means planes will be higher when they are close to the residential area.

In terms of air quality, there are measures we will be implementing at the airport, transforming buses and other vehicles operating there into hybrid energy. But the main issue is in the roads around the airport, and on this issue we have to work with the government and the Mayor of London to reduce the number of people driving to the airport by using a carrot and stick approach: improving public transport and increasing emission charges and congestion charges, so as to encourage people to use public service rather than private cars. The bottom line is: there will be no additional traffic around the airport as a result of the expansion. Combined with the fact that we will be using hybrid energy in the airport, this means that Heathrow is going to be less polluted.  

What is the level of support you receive from Hounslow Council? 

Hounslow Council has made it clear that they will not legally challenge the decision for Heathrow. That is the big difference from the past: Hounslow used to be one of the councils which wanted to legally challenge the decision if Heathrow had been granted the third runway, but now we have worked together on the issues.

We have had very constructive meetings with the leader, Councillor Steve Curran, and senior members: they have made it very clear that Heathrow needs to be better, that we need to improve the benefits and reduce problems. They have helped us identify which are the issues we need to address. They have been very clear about the night time operations, about seeing planes fly higher, making investments around the airport in schools and other community facilities to reduce the impact, providing more opportunity for businesses in Hounslow to work and export. We have talked about how this would actually work and received a significant amount of credit for our revised plan. But also we have talked to them about what would happen with expansion, such as Heathrow Garden City based on the south access to the airport.

Are there any other initiatives you are undertaking with Hounslow Council?

We have sponsored Hounslow Council’s stand at MIPIM. I was part of the Hounslow delegation and I can announce today that we will continue to support Hounslow at MIPIM in 2017, because that is a fantastic way to showcase what the borough can offer at international level, and even if Heathrow is not in Hounslow, a lot of businesses in the borough are international business and they need to use the airport.

There is a lot we can do together to bring more jobs and opportunities into Hounslow and we will work together on that.

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