A final decision on the desperately needed expansion of airport capacity in the South-East has been delayed until next week. It has been nearly five months since the Davies’ Commission recommended the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, and it is worth re-stating the economic case for expansion at Heathrow over Gatwick.
The additional demand from passengers is expected to come from long-haul flying. Although expansion at Gatwick would cater for growth in intra-European leisure flying, Heathrow is in a much better position to provide additional capacity for long-haul destinations. The business case for expansion at Heathrow is also compelling. Heathrow’s freight operations are currently 17 times larger than Gatwick and 26% of all UK exports already go via Heathrow, making the third runway option a better prospect for industry. The Heathrow option is also likely to create in the region of 59,000 to 77,000 jobs by 2030 – a number that is well in excess of what expansion at Gatwick can offer.
There have been a number of environmental objections to expansion at Heathrow. Earlier this week, for example, the Environmental Audit Committee claimed that firm plans need to be in place to deal with emissions, air quality and noise. There is no doubt that the disruption from a third runway at Heathrow would exceed that from expansion at Gatwick. Of course, the Centre for Policy Studies’ (CPS) proposal to extend one of Heathrow’s existing runways – which was unfortunately not chosen as the preferred option in the Davies’ Commission – would have somewhat mitigated this. However, we should be clear that objections to Heathrow expansion are not primarily about the environment. They are purely political.
The current Mayor Boris Johnson is against Heathrow expansion, along with the current Labour and Tory Mayoral candidates for 2016. Tory MPs representing seats in the south-west of London – some of whom sit as Ministers in the Government – are also set against Heathrow expansion. And back in 2009, David Cameron said “the third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts.” (Incidentally, the CPS’ proposal of the extended runway could get Cameron ‘off the hook’ on this pledge). This is the political reality that threatens to block expansion of Heathrow.
The UK is in desperate need of airport capacity expansion. Heathrow is at capacity and Gatwick is rapidly approaching the same point. If the political realities mean Heathrow expansion cannot be achieved, then the Government should go ahead with another option.
What is absolutely imperative is that there can be no more dithering on UK airport expansion. We must have a final decision next week.