A third runway is no way to sustainable, equitable wellbeing

Wellbeing hit the headlines this week, featuring in the final report of Sir Howard Davies’ Airport Commission. Simon Jenkins, writing for The Guardian accuses Davies of claiming blandly” that a bigger Heathrow means higher levels of life satisfaction, mental health and happiness”.

The Davies report was actually a bit more specific than that, stating:

Leisure flights have a high social value. Empirical analysis focused on passengers travelling on holiday or to visit friends and family has shown how the access to leisure travel affects mental health and wellbeing. The findings demonstrate these patterns of travel are associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, general and mental health, and happiness.”

This finding comes from a separate evidence review conduced by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) published alongside the main report. There have been some, mostly valid criticisms of how robust these findings are. No surprises there: most evidence is imperfect, and while we need to constantly be exploring these imperfections and, where necessary pursuing more and better studies, this shouldn’t stop us from acting on the best available evidence in the meantime.

But there is a wider lesson here about the questions that were asked to elicit these answers. The aim of the evidence review was:

“[T]o enable the Commission to better understand the links between leisure and quality of life. It is designed to help the Commission assess the impacts that a change in aviation capacity could have on those passengers travelling for leisure purposes, including those travelling for a holiday or visiting friends & relatives (VFR).”

This was the wrong question to have asked. Rather than exploring the immediate wellbeing impacts on those passengers who already fly, the Commission should have devoted its attention to exploring how aviation policy could achieve sustainable, equitable wellbeing for the whole population. This means not only improving average wellbeing, but also decreasing inequalities in wellbeing, and doing so in a way that safeguards wellbeing in the future.

What might such a study look like?

First, the question of who is taking leisure flights would be properly examined. Encouragingly, PwC does try to examine the effects of leisure holidays on different socio-economic groups, but runs up against a lack of evidence. A broader perspective could have come to some important conclusions about the equity effect on the whole population. As NEF’s own newly published work on securing a fairer way to fly reveals it is estimated that 70% of the total number of flights are taken by only 15% of the population. Unsurprisingly, those who do fly are also, on average, richer. For example, the average income for leisure passengers at Edinburgh Airport in 2013 was more than twice the average Scottish income.”

We know that higher income is also associated with higher wellbeing. So protecting air travel for the minority who already enjoy leisure flights has the potential to maintain or even increase and exacerbate existing wellbeing inequalities. A policy framework focussed on increasing mean wellbeing while also reducing wellbeing inequalities would have given less priority to leisure fights for this population segment, compared to other considerations.

Second, in pursuit of sustainable wellbeing, we would look much more closely at the environmental efficiency of such wellbeing gains. So, a new runway could increase the wellbeing of a minority. But what if people could enjoy that wellbeing gain by travelling somewhere by train – in the UK or abroad? You’d get much more wellbeing bang for your environmental buck. The PwC report makes no attempt to compare holidays in the UK with holidays abroad, or trips taken by train with those taken by other modes of transport.

Much as proponents of a third runway would like to paint this choice as being between more misery or more flights, such a problematic trade-off between wellbeing and environmental impact stems from a false dichotomy.

The real trade off at stake here is quite different: the wellbeing of a minority of wealthier-than-average people now, against both the wellbeing of poorer and more vulnerable people already suffering from climate change – as well as the future generations who stand to lose the most from unsustainable policies.

The use of wellbeing evidence in the third runway debate shows why those of us who advocate greater use of its insights also need to be clearer and louder about the outcomes we care about. This means looking beyond crude wellbeing and requires a renewed focus on wellbeing that is both sustainable and equitable.

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