The elephant in the committee room

Probably the biggest issue when considering subjecting thousands of human beings to increased air pollution and noise is the health impact so it’s baffling that the Davies Commission has ignored it.  That’s one huge elephant in the room to ignore.  

The last four pages of the Airports Commission Consultation Document (Nov 2014) lists the “detailed analysis reports” that provided information for the document but there is no mention of the word health.  Why hasn’t the Davies Commission made a proper assessment of the impact of Heathrow expansion on health?

The absence of such an assessment was pointed out before the Commission held its Consultation event at the Park Inn Hotel near Heathrow in December 2014. This was pointed out to the Commission prior to and during the event. No one was invited to speak specifically on health despite the afternoon session featuring three business representatives who largely repeated points already raised.

Recent enquiries indicate that neither the Hillingdon Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) nor the Hillingdon NHS Foundation Trust have been asked for their input. Healthwatch Hillingdon has made a submission after being contacted by members of the public and SHE.

Sadly, it seems unlikely that anyone senior at the CCG or Hillingdon NHS Trust has even read the consultation document as they appear unaware of its significance or are perhaps too busy dealing with the current problems to think about the future. Richard Sumray, Chairman of Hillingdon NHS Foundation Trust has commented, “When the decision is made we’ve got 10 years to look at it”.  (It seems rather feeble to say and do nothing and allow a recommendation to be made without any input from the main hospital in the area.)

The Davies Commission should be looking at how much it will cost the government (ie taxpayers) to ensure health provision near Heathrow can cope with the additional influx of workers, air travellers and road users.

As of December 2014, Hillingdon NHS Foundation Trust had a deficit of £1.6m. Their Accident and Emergency department, which would be the nearest for an incident at Heathrow, recorded its busiest month to date in December 2014. In fact, the figures for every month since last July show an increase in emergency admissions.   So even without expansion and yet more people, the hospital is struggling to cope with the upward trend. Note that passengers needing hospital treatment while at Heathrow are taken to Hillingdon Hospital, as are inmates at the Detention Centres, which exist locally because of the airport.

Targets cannot be met. The London Ambulance Service should not be treating people in the vehicle when they need hospital attention. Yet, despite financial penalties imposed on the hospital by the CCG for delays, 15% of patients were not transferred from vehicle car park to A&E within 30 minutes. (Dec 2014)

The Greater London Authority (GLA) has just reported that Hillingdon Borough has had the greatest increase in population of all the London boroughs since 1939, with an increase of around 130,000 people (82%). A large proportion of those have been housed in the southern wards, which are the most densely populated. These are the areas in the borough that will be most affected by Heathrow expansion.

Health services are already unable to cope and services have been crumbling for some time. Talk to Hillingdon residents, particularly those living in the south, and you will hear about the difficulty of accessing services too.  Four out of five Heathrow Villages have no GP surgery, dentist or pharmacy.  It is not uncommon to wait 3 weeks for a GP appointment for illness.  We hear of GPs leaving the area but none arriving.  If your illness becomes serious and you need to visit the A&E at Hillingdon Hospital you can expect a long wait.  If you need a scan you could find yourself waiting a long time – only to discover that a transit passenger who has just been taken ill at Heathrow is ahead of you in the queue.

Problems are not exclusive to Hillingdon. Services around West London are coping with cuts, forcing many people to seek medical care outside of their local area. For example, patients living in Heathrow Villages ward may have to have blood tests at Ashford Hospital, dental treatment in Hounslow and see specialists at St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey. This knock-on effect will certainly be more apparent to people in other areas when the first flood of people looking for the promised new jobs arrive.

The impact on health should be a major concern. No amount of projected financial benefit should detract from the damage caused to the health of those forced to live with Heathrow expansion. 

We are aware that the Commission has numerous advisors who can assist with examination of the research evidence that shows the detrimental impact of noise and air pollution on health. Our representative at the Commission event in December and the Hillingdon Borough submission have both listed some figures (patients suffering specific conditions such as asthma) but even these do not show those who have not been diagnosed or are being treated for an airport-related illness not featured in the list. People living under threat of losing their homes have also asked us to mention the impact on mental health and stress-related conditions. 

Fundamentally, it should be a basic human right to breathe without the fear that the air in your lungs is shortening your life. People currently living near Heathrow cannot do that. 

It is important that the damage caused by particulates generated by increases in road traffic, which includes the planned increase in freight vehicles, is examined. It is not acceptable that children should be expected to live, play and learn in an environment that is known to damage their developing lungs. Life expectancy in the south of Hillingdon is 7 years shorter than in the north of the borough and pollution is said to be responsible for one in twelve deaths in London.  Even if Davies puts Heathrow profit before  people, the cost of caring for those made ill by pollution and prematurely dying should be factored in to the estimated costs.