Gatwick Airport has offered to compensate nearby residents for the increase in aircraft noise that will result if the operator gets the go-ahead to build a second runway. Under Gatwick’s proposal, the just over 4,000 households that are exposed to aircraft noise levels of 57 decibels or above would receive annual payments of £1,000, roughly the average local Council Tax bill.
Gatwick should be praised for this initiative, which is a novelty in British aviation policy. In principle, compensation is exactly the right way to go. Done properly, compensation means internalising externalities, and moving from a winner-takes-all system to a system based on consent and cooperation.
Boiled down to the basics, the issue is simple. When an airport expands its activities, some people win (passengers, airport operators, airlines, staff), and others lose (residents). But if the winners’ gains outweigh the losers’ losses, the former could compensate the latter, turning the issue into a win-win situation. Nobody likes noise, but our dislike of noise is not infinite, and with appropriate compensation, most of us would be quite prepared to put up with it. Does that mean that the problem of noise externalities would be solved if all airports emulated Gatwick’s behaviour, and put up similar offers? Unfortunately, the answer is no. And here’s why:
The ability to offer compensation payments to local residents would fit seamlessly into a decentralised system of decision-making, in which the power to approve or reject an airport’s application for expansion rests with local residents or their local representatives. Yet within our current hypercentralised system of governance, compensation remains an alien element.
How can we know what monetary value the residents in the Gatwick area place on the additional noise that a second runway would entail? Is it more than an average Council Tax bill, less, or about the same? Asking people in a non-binding survey will not produce reliable information, and the judgement of ‘experts’ or self-appointed ‘voices of the community’ even less so. There is only one way to find out: make the residents an offer, and see what they make of it. Let them, and nobody else, decide whether they accept it or not.
At first sight, it looks as if Gatwick was saying to those living nearby: ‘Allow us to emit some more noise, and we will pay your Council Tax for you. Deal?’ But that is not how it works. Gatwick’s offer is not really an attempt to persuade local residents – those residents do not have the power to accept or reject the airport’s offer. It is, instead, an attempt to persuade Howard Davies’ Airports Commission, and ultimately, the government that will act upon the commission’s recommendations. What matters is not whether local residents agree with the proposal, but whether the government thinks they might agree, or at least, whether the government thinks they will make less noise (no pun intended) than the people who would be affected by alternative decisions.
Note that this is not a flaw in Gatwick’s compensation offer. Under the current system, Gatwick’s proposal is as good as it gets. The flaw is in the overall system of decision-making. We should give airports, and those affected by their operations, the means to work out a deal that benefits all sides. Politicians at the national level should not be involved in airport infrastructure decisions at all.
Dr Kristian Niemietz is the author of Depoliticising Airport Expansion.
Follow him on Twitter: @K_Niemietz