Davies plumps for Heathrow

The Davies Commission has reported and recommended a third runway at Heathrow. This may not be a good decision for UK Plc because, many people say, Heathrow remains politically, and environmentally undeliverable, and will need to use public money for road infrastructure. Further, the continuing uncertainty over where the next runway will be built leaves the business community struggling.

Boris Johnson was on BBC TV this morning, saying of a Heathrow third runway “It’ll never happen”. He certainly thinks it’s undeliverable.

Expansion at Gatwick would have brought more jobs and prosperity to the area. Yes, there would have been costs, in environmental terms and in the loss of productively used land, but these could have been mitigated, and the economic benefits could well have outweighed them.

Sir Howard’s report leaves the door open for Gatwick. He says: “Gatwick….has presented a plausible case for expansion.”

However, he goes on to say: “It is well placed to cater for growth in intra-European leisure flying, but is unlikely to provide as much of the type of capacity which is most urgently required: long-haul destinations in new markets”.

The argument that appears to have won the day is that UK Plc will be better served by trying to maintain our position in the international aviation pecking order, and to preserve our international ‘hub’ airport – the hub has beaten the ‘hubbuster’ on this occasion.

Whether this is sensible or not will only become clear over time. Dubai recently overtook Heathrow as the World’s busiest airport. It, and other airports challenging for ‘hub’ style traffic do not have the land constraints that Heathrow (and indeed any UK airport) faces. For one there is land aplenty. For two, if the Sheikh wants another runway, it gets built.

Dubai Airport is at the centre of an ambitious play by the emirate to use their remaining oil money to turn what was a small fishing port into a World City to rival London. That long game gives their attitude to investment a very different perspective.

Most airports globally are publicly owned. Ours are private. The plans to expand both Heathrow and Gatwick would have been largely privately funded, although Heathrow expansion would cost the public purse more than Gatwick.

However, it seems unfortunate that, at a time of continuing austerity and economic hardship, by refusing Gatwick’s offer to spend money on nationally important infrastructure we are effectively saying to international money “no thanks, invest in another country”.

It’s often said that the runways are not the problem. They are generally flat and quiet. The noise comes from the aeroplanes. Perhaps it would be more sensible to allow the building of whatever runways investors are prepared to fund while controlling the volume of flights? Certainly this would help resilience, in times of bad weather for example.

Sir Howard suggests in hi report that, even with a third runway at Heathrow, there would be likely to be sufficient demand to justify a second additional runway in the South East by 2050 or, in some scenarios, earlier.

He says that while this doesn’t mean a second new runway would be justified on economic or environmental grounds, Government should evaluate the case for increasing airport capacity through a further independent process.  He says it would be appropriate to begin the process early. Why not now? If there is to be no fourth Heathrow runway, as the report recommends, then surely Gatwick would be the only option? Can we make that decision now at least, and begin planning?

The battle to build the next new runway is not over of course. The report is only a recommendation, and Government must now decide whether to go with it or against it. Certainly a number of ministers have already spoken out against Heathrow, although not necessarily in favour of Gatwick, so it is clear that there is much still to debate. Ultimately the decision of where to place a new runway will not be a business-based one, or even an economic one, but a political one.

Gatwick Airport CEO Stewart Wingate said: “Gatwick is still very much in the race. The Commission’s report makes clear that expansion at Gatwick is deliverable.

“It is for the Commission to make a recommendation but it is of course for the Government to decide. So we now enter the most important stage of the process.

“We are confident that when the Government makes that decision they will choose Gatwick as the only deliverable option. For instance, this report highlights the very significant environmental challenges at Heathrow such as air quality and noise impact.

“Gatwick will give the country the economic benefits it needs and at the same time impact far less people. It is quicker simpler and quieter. Above all – after decades of delay – it can actually happen.”

The final decision is in the hands of our Government. They may yet choose to ignore Sir Howard and endorse a new runway at Gatwick rather than Heathrow, or allow both to be built. It is entirely possible that they will become riven with intractable disagreement and fail to make or implement any decision. It is entirely possible they may spend another three years looking at it, during which time our airports fall further down the international league, and inward investment heads to other countries – money does not have a passport, as they say.

Let us hope, at least, that our leaders have the courage to take a decision.