Time to back Gatwick?

Gatwick has put forward improved proposals for a second runway for consideration by the Airports Commission. Its arguments are strong, but the airport needs support to win the debate.

Their 3,200 page submission, they say, is an “evidence-based report that shows clearly why expansion at Gatwick is the obvious solution to meeting the UK’s connectivity needs for the next generation.”

Certainly a second runway at Gatwick will enable more people to fly to more destinations. It can be delivered more cost effectively, with a higher degree of certainty and much less planning and construction risk than options at Heathrow, where local antipathy to expansion is high, and the Mayor of London is vehemently opposed.

Hillingdon – the local planning authority for Heathrow – has said publicly it would prefer to see Heathrow close, an astonishing position for a body charged with protecting the employment of (at the lowest estimate) 10,000 of their voters. It is good that our local authorities are not seeking Gatwick’s closure!

Expansion at Gatwick would also increase competition in the aviation market, which should be a good thing for travellers and for the freight market, which is often forgotten, but crucially important to business. Gatwick say the economic benefit to the UK of this enhanced competition will be £40 billion more than Heathrow’s third runway – which Heathrow themselves estimate at £100bn.

Heathrow are dealing well with many of the criticisms of their plans. Their submission now makes it clear the M25 would not need to close while a 14-lane tunnelled replacement is built. Their noise management proposals, combined with an increased insulation grants and compensation fund five times that originally proposed could go a long way to pacifying the vocal locals who object to any form of expansion there. And their arguments around jobs are starting to hit home, with a recent poll showing a majority of those with an opinion on the subject living around the airport in favour of expansion – people are realising that it might be a bit noisy, but they owe it their livelihood.

Also, business support for the airport is increasing. London First, the London Chamber of Commerce, and other powerful employer groups prefer the Heathrow options. Heathrow’s arguments around jobs roughly mirror those the Mayor of London is making for an estuary airport, which adds credibility. Businesses in the Thames Valley are beginning to gather behind the Heathrow proposals and offer support.

Gatwick’s case is strong. The competition argument is a good one. Building on the already good, but improvable public transport system connecting the airport to the rest of the UK looks sensible. The noise footprint affects many less people, and so is a considerably smaller political problem.

Heathrow’s key argument – that it is a hub airport that the UK needs – is one Gatwick cannot ignore. Gatwick cannot believably claim to be able to supplant Heathrow as the international hub. So the airport must prove a hub is not essential. The airport say that changing patterns in aviation – the rise of low cost carriers, and of new hubs in the Middle East – will reduce the importance of transfer passengers to the UK. That may be true, but it is an argument that still needs to be won nationally.

We may also require a powerful argument around connecting airports. If there is no hub, the connections between Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted must be better, or we risk losing traffic to Amsterdam or Frankfurt where passengers can walk from one terminal to another to transfer. This will weigh heavily in Sir Howard Davies’ decision, and must be addressed with investment in surface infrastructure.

Expanding Gatwick would deliver massive economic benefits for the whole of the UK, and this case must be made strongly if the airport is to win the right to expand. Their contention, that expansion at Gatwick will give the UK the greatest economic boost, more quickly – around £40 billion more than expansion at Heathrow – must be understood and believed. The case for the creation of 120,000 jobs across London and the South East must be made clearly, as this is also a greater impact than Heathrow claim their plan would produce.

Deliverability is a key area where Gatwick have an advantage. Gatwick’s second runway is a relatively straightforward construction project, building a new runway on land already set aside for runway expansion.

The lower construction risk means a second runway at Gatwick could be built for £7.8 billion – less than the £16bn cost of expanding Heathrow – so ensuing airport charges would be lower.

Let us be selfish for a moment. A new runway at Gatwick would mean, say, 40,000 new jobs in the Gatwick Diamond. That would generate employment and prosperity for our businesses, and our young people for decades to come. Yes, there would be issues – housing, congestion, noise, pollution – but these can be managed, and may be better than the alternative.

If Heathrow is the only airport allowed to expand, then Gatwick may at best maintain passenger volumes. This would lead to a decline in employment at and around the airport – if you’re not growing, you’re going backwards.

There is the possibility that Sir Howard will recommend expansion at both airports. Both are privately funded, so there is little cost to the taxpayer beyond any mammoth planning inquiry that would need to be held. This would increase competition, and would add resilience to the network – if fog closes one, the planes could more easily land at the other.

However, the likelihood is that one option will be picked, with a ‘reserve’ option to be developed in, say, 2050. So with Heathrow mobilising supporters, if the Gatwick Diamond wants the first choice to be Gatwick, it needs to help Gatwick win the arguments.

Heathrow has strong business backing, so if businesses in the Gatwick Diamond want the airport to stay, they must support it more vocally, and be seen to.

Heathrow has political opposition, so if our local authorities value the jobs the expansion would create over the environmental cost, they must offer support to Gatwick.

If we want Gatwick to grow, we must back it now, or we may lose the chance for at least a generation.