Runway capacity: it’s time to decide

Almost exactly a year ago the Airports Commission published its final report and recommendations. The preceding decades were littered with prevarication and procrastination by successive governments on the absolutely crucial question of where to expand the South East's bursting airport capacity. The independent commission was established to clear a way through the 25-year impasse, by taking a dispassionate and pragmatic look at the most viable options. Hope was raised that, at last, a decision could be made in the economic interests of the UK as a whole. After three years of careful and detailed consideration, and at a cost of some £20m, the commission reached its final recommendation of a third runway at Heathrow.

So where is the UK now on the question of where to expand? Depressingly, we have entered an extended period of non-decision on the issue. In part, this is a consequence of the wider uncertainties brought about by the result of the EU referendum, but let's not forget that the indecision predates 23 June. Dithering has stymied a big, strategic choice that must be made.

And now the vital first decision on location, let alone the subsequent decisions that will be necessary to get spades in the ground, is further away than it was prior to 23 June. It is all too clear that no decision is possible until the current political vacuum is filled and stability restored. The secretary of state recently confirmed, to general dismay among the business community, that this will not be before October.

The Transport Select Committee's position is that expansion is required and that Heathrow is the best location. The case has now become even stronger in the politically and economically uncertain times ahead. There can be no doubt that the situation in relation to our major airport's capacity is unsustainable: Heathrow is at full capacity and has been for years; Gatwick will be full in five years' time. The commission was unequivocal in its conclusion that expanded aviation capacity is crucial for the UK's long-term prosperity.

By further delaying the airport expansion decision, despite having a very clear recommendation from the commission, the Government has created uncertainty that could have an effect on business confidence and willingness to make long-term investments in the UK. This is a gift to UK airports' international competitors, many of which are forging ahead with their own expansion plans. The cost of what business leaders have rightly called "disastrous procrastination" will ultimately be measured in lost growth and jobs. The CBI now estimates that the delay could lead to the UK losing £22.5bn of trade with emerging markets, including the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China), to France and Germany. In other words, precisely the opposite of what is now required.

What, surely, everyone can now agree on is that bold decisions are needed to boost the UK's economic prospects, for the benefit of all in these uncertain times. Airport expansion and the undoubted benefits it will bring, should be at the top of the priority list of such decisions.
Now that Theresa May has emerged from the political maelstrom to lead us through the choppy waters ahead, she must quickly get on with that job. I urge her to make a swift decision on location, map out the path to planning approval and finally get the project moving.

Of course I accept that there are important local considerations and environmental effects that must be carefully examined and mitigated. Major infrastructure projects will always present these difficulties, but it is the job of politicians to find a path through these legitimate concerns. Our business leaders consider it shameful that we have for so long been unable to do so – and I cannot disagree with that view.

Let me be absolutely clear – the issue of airport capacity is of utmost important to the UK's future prosperity; it will not go away; and the costs of further delay will increase dramatically at a time when we can ill afford them. Any temptation to rip up the work of the commission and start all over again must be resisted.

What is clearly needed now, perhaps more than ever, is decisive action to promote the UK's economic interests. This time it has to be decision time.

Reference: Transport Times, July 2016 Issue 

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