The aviation capacity debate took centre stage at Place West London this week, with opinions either side of the R3 issue presented, but with general agreement that the Davies Review timetable is too long.
Minister from the Department of Transport, Stephen Hammond MP, gave the government view, that a considered and careful review of the issues was necessary, that Howard Davies was the man for it, and that the schedule – interim report in 2013, final report in 2015 – gave the time necessary for a full and proper review.
Daniel Moylan, Boris’ key aviation adviser, said that despite the minister’s many qualities he “lacked urgency”. He said that a six runway hub airport close to London with connections to 18 UK cities already existed – Schiphol, in Amsterdam. “We lost the docks to the Dutch in the 70s”, he said, “we risk losing our airport industry to them now”.
While delaying the decision on how to allow capacity expansion would be costly to UK Plc, he maintained that Heathrow “cannot provide the capacity required”. A major modern hub airport with connections to 250+ worldwide destinations is needed, and that cannot be built at Heathrow, he said. The Mayor is looking to establish the case for building a new airport, and was open to suggestion on where that would be – Stansted, Luton, a new Heathrow to the West, and two sites in the Thames Estuary are all being promoted. That decision could be taken once the government is convinced of the case for a new airport, said Moylan.
He said that a new airport could be delivered in not much longer than a third runway at Heathrow, a point which some other speakers disagreed with. Lord Clive Soley, while agreeing the timescale for the Davies Review was dangerously slow, suggested that a third runway at Heathrow was deliverable easily and quickly, and that doing this now would give UK Plc the time to make a judgement on what further capacity expansion might be necessary thereafter, when improvement in aeroplane and aviation fuel technology might make it easier to mitigate the environmental effects of increased numbers of flights.
Lord Soley made the point that Heathrow provides 76,000 people with on-airport jobs, and allows another 100,000 in the surrounding area – approximately one in five West London jobs. He argued that a new hub airport elsewhere would wipe these jobs out, and devastate the West London economy – just as the demise of the docks wiped out the east end for 50 years.
More jobs than that depend on the economic effect of the airport of course, so if Heathrow were to close, the effects would likely be much more significant. Moylan felt that Heathrow could survive as a “one-runway airport serving the premium leisure market”, but even this is likely to have some negative effect on employment, and therefore land and property values.
Cll Ravi Govindia, leader of Wandsworth Council, while opposed to expansion at Heathrow, spoke about the importance of infrastructure investment as an enabler of economic development, in connection with the proposed TIF which would part-fund the extension of the Northern Line to Battersea. The massively ambitious Nine Elms regeneration can only really succeed if the infrastructure investment predates it, so it was, he said, a risk worth taking, a principle with which Mr Hammond agreed, saying that “infrastructure investment was required to support regeneration projects”.
Alan Holland of SEGRO said his tenants – thousands of West London businesses, wanted action now. Transport capacity was a big issue – road and air – and he empasised the “need to do something now”, and to look for a “deliverable solution”.
Mr Hammond had also spoken of improvements in tube and overground rail witin London, which had lifted capacity by 30%, but he said that there would be crowding again on public transport by 2030, and that Crossrail 2 (proposed from Clapham Junction to Stansted), the Northern Line Extension, and HS2 would all be needed to keep London moving.
No other speaker agreed with the minister that the Davies Review timetable was sensible. Rory Meakin of the Tax Payers Alliance argued the long review itself was a “waste of tax payers money”, and urged the government to “have the guts to take the decision now, rather than long-grass it until after the next election”.
Meakin said that not only would the expense and time of the review be a waste, but that the damage the delayed decision could cause to the economy was definitely not in taxpayers’ interests. It was a reminder that most UK taxpayers do not live near Heathrow, or indeed any other airport, and would prefer the squabble to stop, and for someone to have the political courage to take a decision in the best interest of the nation.
On the day this was written, it was announced that the UK economy had moved to positive GDP growth, and thus exited recession. That this happened largely due to the boost from the Olympics, which involved a lot of people flying in to Heathrow and spending money in London only served to emphasise the importance of the UK’s largest airport not just to London, but to the national economy.
Richard Barnes, the conference chair, said watching the Heathrow debate was a little like “watching reruns of Coronation Street”, as it had been around so many times. What the speakers and delegates at the event generally agreed was that, for the good of everyone in the UK, it is time for the reruns to stop.