Time to decide – action or inaction?

Speakers at Runways UK gave an idea of where we are, following the Airports Commission Report recommending expansion at Heathrow, underlining that the “hugely symbolic decision” now rests with Government, and that it is one which needs to be taken for the sake of the nation.

Sir Howard Davies, speaking on video, gave a quick overview of his report. He said that he chose the Heathrow Airport plan beacause the North West runway proposal will deliver the greatest economic benefit. The other two options (Gatwick and the Heathrow Hub) were both useful contributions to the debate he said, and finaceable.

He also said that the North West runway proposal dominated over Heathrow Hub’s runway extension plan for capacity improvement, noise, and air quality.

Now his report has been delivered, the decision is in the hands of the Government. Sir Howard said it was a hugely symbolic decision. The World thinks the UK can’t make up its mind. This perception of a country dithering contributes to a feeling that the UK is in decline. This would damage our economy, and London’s status as a World city, and would make investment in the UK more difficult, he said.

As Sir Howard said: “The stakes are high”.

Andrew Adonis, noting that as he was Transport Minister the last time Heathrow expansion was approved, this felt like “deja vu all over again”.

He continued on the theme of what could stop this very firm recommendation in favour of Heathrow being turned in to reality. He said that “the choice is now not between Heathrow and Gatwick but between action and inaction.”

Inaction, he said, can be tempting to politicians, “you just need to look like you’re doing something”. He said that the Government has so far “firmly committed to spending many months reading the report”.

The political landscape is beset by difficulty for this Government. The first election after a decision on the issue is likely to be that for the new Mayor of London. At least one leading conservative candidate – Zac Goldsmith – is bitterly opposed to expansion at Heathrow, as is the existing Mayor.

Within the cabinet, several ministers with West London constituencies are also opposed. Justine Greening for example, and Guy Hands, now Chief Secretary to the Treasury. This adds up to an uncomfortable position for the Prime Minister.

Lord Adonis said there were three possibilities. The first was the most positive for the West London economy – a decision to proceed as recommended.

The second would be to identify some further questions, or some further process required – perhaps work on the scope and role of the proposed noise authority, or the definition of what “no overall increase in noise” actually means. He said we could spend years in another independent review on these issues.

The third option is to simply say that Government is not at present happy that the conditions laid down in the report can be satisfied, which would mean nothing would happen.

He did say that the Davies Report has established that expanding Heathrow is the only option on the table. Expanding Gatwick is merely described as “plausible”. This, he said, makes it difficult to proceed with Gatwick without some further process

So Sir Howard Davies has made it possible for Heathrow to expand, and very difficult for any other option in the near future.

Lord Adonis was keen not to be too pessimistic. He made it clear that he believed that UK Plc can do such things. “At some point in the next 20 years there will be another runway. It may be at Heathrow, it may be at Gatwick. It may be elsewhere”, but he was confident it would be done.

John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s CEO, made a call to the Government to cut through this political difficulty. He asked “Are we ready to take this decision, or are we prepared to accept second best, and be on a an economic branch line?”

He made a series of points showing, he said, that they were already addressing noise and air quality issues, and would take this further, launching a public transport blueprint which would increase the number of airport passengers using public transport by 10% in four years.

He briefly reviewed previous expansion plans emphasising that the current proposal was very different. “Looking back, our previous expansion plan could have been better. The shorter runway would not have delivered improved respite from noise. The new runway is a full 3500m, can accomodate all aircraft, and has a flightpath over the M4”.

In a message to David Cameron, he said: “We have U-turned, so the PM doesn’t have to”. He also suggested that Expansion at Heathrow may not be as unpopular in West London as his cabinet sceptics may feel. Holland-Kaye said that 58,000 local people wrote to the commission in support, outnumbering those opposed by 10 to one. “The silent majority has spoken”, he said.

Expansion at Heathrow will assist investment in, and regeneration of West London and the Thames Valley. He said that the first example – Heathrow Garden City, a development in Hounslow, would be announced shortly.

It will also assist in the battle against youth unemployment = he announced the setting up of the Heathrow Education & Skills taskforce. The Airport will Work to engage local companies and to bring them in to the supply chain, and will now begin to develop a comprehensive procurement strategy for the £15.6 billion investment.

He said that Heathrow planned to start work now, working towards a planning permission, and engaging with the supply chain now to create the capability they will need.

Holland-Kaye finished by urging Government to follow this example. He concluded: “Let’s get on with it!”

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