Boris worries over “political fix”

The Mayor of London has told the Evening Standard that a “political fix” is putting Gatwick in pole position for a new runway, while Willie Walsh of BA also thinks Gatwick will win the race.

Boris Johnson is still backing plans for a £65bn Thames estuary airport, but now frames his bid with an argument based around using the Heathrow site as a place to build homes to meet London’s housing demand.

His forecasts show a need for over 50,000 new homes a year in London, with only 20,000 or so being built in the last 12 months. His plan for the Heathrow site would provide 90,000 in one location.

Leaving aside that it might be cheaper to build 90,000 houses on the Isle of Grain and leave Heathrow as it is, it’s his comments about Gatwick that are the most interesting for the Diamond region.

He told the Standard that the Government was edging towards giving Gatwick the go-ahead for another runway, saying there was “a political fix around Gatwick”. Boris said, echoing his words at a briefing a month or so ago: “A lot of money is moving off Heathrow and on to Gatwick.”

Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways, told the Independent that Gatwick expansion was the most likely outcome. He dismissed “Boris Island” as having no support other than from Boris. Further, he said that Sir Howard Davies’ recommendations don’t really matter as “whatever he does will be handed over to politicians, none of whom are bound by his recommendations”.

For this reason, he says that Gatwick will win the right to build a new runway as it will be seen as less politically sensitive, regardless of what Sir Howard suggests.

If that’s true, it could be good news for our region. It is estimated that another runway would bring 40,000 jobs to the area.

Boris believes a hub airport is essential to the UK, so he is, with his comments, trying to warn the Davies Commission off Gatwick. The Mayor knows Gatwick’s plans are deliverable – financed by private money, and in political terms less hazardous than more flights over Hounslow, and this will be attractive to politicians currently worrying over every vote.

The Thames Estuary proposal has significant questions over its deliverability. It would cost a huge amount – £25 billion to build, with a further £25 billion for transport infrastructure, and £14 billion to purchase and close Heathrow. Yes, there could be revenue from the redevelopment of that site as housing, but that would probably roughly pay back the £14bn cost of closure.

This cost is likely to produce much higher landing fees than airlines currently pay at Heathrow – the Davies Commission estimates three times as high. This will of course reduce competition and push up air fares – precisely the opposite of allowing expansion at Gatwick.

There remain questions about the suitability of the Thames Estuary for take off and landing – birds and fog are common there, and both can cause significant danger and disruption.

So if deliverability matters to Davies, Gatwick beats the estuary. If Gatwick is to win the Davies argument, then it needs to continue to focus on this, for example doing more work on how the employment land taken by the new runway would be replaced and amplified, to house some of the 40,000 jobs it would create.

Delivering economic growth around the airport – the focus of our Forum event on June 5 – and doing so in a sustainable way, is just as important to Davies as building the runway.