Having approved a new nuclear plant at Hinckley Point, the next big infrastructure decision in Theresa May’s stacked in-tray is that vexed question – dodged by politicians for decades – of where to build Britain’s much-needed new airport capacity.
In July 2015, the five-person Airports Commission, appointed by David Cameron to shelve the issue until after the May general election, gave “unanimous backing” to a third runway at Heathrow. It looked almost certain Europe’s largest airport would get the all-important government nod.
Since then, as Cameron again avoided the controversial decision and then resigned anyway, Gatwick has fought back, vigorously campaigning for a second runway south of the capital. And now, with a new government, and a Prime Minister determined to break the deadlock, it seems either option could prevail.
While fully recognizing the economic case for more airport capacity, I despair at the idea of expanding Heathrow. It’s in the wrong place, for starters, with flight paths over some of London’s most densely-populated areas. Does it really make sense to further develop an already enormous airport smack in the middle of a suburban landscape that’s home to millions and set to become even more populated in the years to come? I think not.
Then there’s the environmental impact. Britain’s Supreme Court has already ruled that air pollution around Heathrow breaches legal limits, given that aircraft emissions combine with car pollution from the jam-packed M4 and M25 motorways. To add another 250,000 flights a year to the present 470,000, with all the related extra road traffic, would make a nonsense of our anti-pollution legislation.
The case for Heathrow apparently hinges on the airport securing its “hub” status, helping consolidate London as a centre for global business. For over four fifths of those flying into the capital, though, London is their final destination. And almost 70pc of Heathrow’s existing passengers are tourists.
So while Heathrow may want to offer more flights to far-flung business hot spots in China, India and elsewhere, it could do that by giving up other non-business slots, allowing more of the Mediterranean holiday routes to go to Gatwick and Stansted.
A third Heathrow runway is estimated to cost an astonishing £17.7bn. Part of the reason is the extensive home demolition required, with all the legal wrangling and compensation payments that entails. Countless more billions would be spent diverted existing roads, including tunneling under the runway to re-route the M25, pushing the total bill way above £30bn. This sheer complexity explains why a new Heathrow runway wouldn’t be ready until 2029 at the earliest.
Expanding Gatwick, in contrast, involving far less demolition and local upheaval, would cost £7.8bn, with an arrival time five years earlier. A bigger Gatwick would also mean London ended up with two world-class airports – like New York, Paris and Tokyo – rather than one. And Crossrail anyway means that we’ll soon have much faster links between Heathrow and London’s other airports, weakening the argument for a single, over-bearing “hub”.
The main reason I don’t back Heathrow’s third runway, though, is that I believe in competition. Five years ago, the Competition Commission forced BAA, which runs Heathrow, to sell Gatwick, Stansted and some other UK airports. The idea was to challenge BAA’s near-monopoly for the benefit of passengers and the broader UK economy.
Since then, the private investors who bought Gatwick have financed a major improvement programme and reversed years of losses. That’s on revenues in the hundreds of millions, though, compared to Heathrow’s multi-billion pound operation. It would be perverse, given how Gatwick’s new owners have demonstrated their determined to give Heathrow a run for its money, for the government to then take a decision that further cemented Heathrow’s top spot.
Anyone who doubts the on-going dominance of the West London behemoth should consider that individual passengers charges are more than double those at Gatwick. Consider, also, that Heathrow accounts for 84pc of all long-haul flights leaving London, according to the Airports Commission. The fine-print of last year’s report actually admitted a third runway would divert traffic back to Heathrow and away from London’s other airports – effectively undermining the Competition Commission’s 2011 ruling. But this deeply-politicized document, entirely lacking in objectivity, opted for Heathrow anyway.
Money talks, after all, and Heathrow has long exerted serious lobbying muscle to maintain its grip on the market. With the government limbering up to decide, Heathrow is now portraying itself as key to the UK’s post-Brexit success, highlighting that last year almost a third of our exports to non-European Union nations took off from its runways. Gatwick, in response, says taxpayers will suffer to the tune of £305 a head if Heathrow gets the green light, given the huge cost of local road reconfiguration.
Both May and her Chancellor, Philip Hammond, represent constituencies close to Heathrow. Both have previously opposed a third runway. Now they’re at the pinnacle of government, they could be keen to counter accusations of nimbyism by anyway backing Heathrow.
On the one hand, May has stacked her cabinet with vocal Heathrow opponents, including the increasingly influential Education Secretary Justine Greening and, of course, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – who recently said Heathrow expansion, given the complexities, is “a fantasy” that should be “consigned to the dustbin of history”. On the other, the Prime Minister has now promised the cabinet a free Commons vote on the airport issue – so no-one elected on the promise of opposing Heathrow, if May’s final judgment goes against them, should feel the need to resign.
While May won’t make her move in the next few days, lest bad feeling spill over into next week’s gathering of the Tory party faithful in Birmingham, this impending decision will loom large over her first conference as leader.
Maybe that’s why Number Ten is now whispering the Prime Minister could give the go-ahead to both Heathrow and Gatwick, while imposing restrictions on each to dilute local opposition. But I think May should be much bolder – not only giving Gatwick the nod over Heathrow, but further indicating the government’s desire to see the rapid expansion of key regional airports in Manchester and Birmingham.
Post-Brexit Britain needs global growth centres beyond the South East. That’s why the Northern Powerhouse must now get off the drawing board, with HS3 being prioritized above all other high-speed rail projects, linking up Liverpool and Manchester in the North West, before extending to the long-neglected but still extremely promising North East.
Imagine the possibilities if the West Midlands, already the UK’s second-biggest exporting region, had in Birmingham an airport offering regular, direct links to global markets. That’s why twenty-nine business and political leaders from the West Midlands last week wrote to May urging to preent Heathrow’s expansion, calling instead for a “truly competitive network of regional airports, which can act as drivers for local growth”.
A third Heathrow runway “would re-forge its monopoly,” the letter continued, “undermining the benefits brought by the break-up of BAA, and restricting the growth of direct flights to and from our great regional cities.” Amen to that.
The UK economy, for all the swing of London and the home counties’ well-healed swagger, is ludicrously imbalanced. Theresa May says she wants to change that, spreading wealth across other regions – and I believe her.
That’s why the Prime Minister should block Heathrow’s third runway, an expansion that would suck oxygen away from a host of other regional growth centres. “One Nation Conservatism” needs to get beyond vapid phrase-making and down to brass tacks. And Birmingham is where that should start.