On Monday the Airports Commission, chaired by Lord Howard Davies, produced its interim report. The Commission was set up to make recommendations on the expansion of airports in and around London, which has become a politically vexed question. To most people, this complex question is viewed through a single dimension, such as whether or not Heathrow will be expanded. As a result, most of the commentary has been very shallow. To me its conclusion is obvious: it will recommend building another runway at Gatwick airport, and all the other airport expansion ideas will be put on ice for 20 years or so. And yet I haven’t seen a single commentator suggest this.
The Commission concluded that it would not be a good idea for us to make do with existing runways, though it denied taking a “predict and provide” approach. Various alternatives, including improving rail travel, or using airports elsewhere in Britain, were dismissed. In addition to a number of shorter-term measures, such as improving rail connectivity, it offered three credible options for adding a runway. Two were based at Heathrow, and one at Gatwick. A further, and much more radical, proposal to build a brand new airport on the Isle of Grain in Kent (“Boris Island” after its most prominent advocate, London’s Mayor Boris Johnson), was not ruled out, but, they said, it needed more analysis. This new airport would imply the closure of Heathrow Airport and, incidentally, London City airport.
So far as Heathrow advocates were concerned, this looked like a major victory, and most of the press seems to agree. The idea of building a third runway at Heathrow had been approved by the last Labour government, but both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats campaigned vigorously against it in West London. So when these two parties formed a coalition in 2010, they quickly ruled it out, with Labour toeing the line also, after doing badly in the west London area in the election. But the Heathrow advocates did not give up. They launched a sustained campaign that convinced many non-London MPs and journalists, so that it became almost conventional wisdom to suggest that the government’s policy of Heathrow was the height of folly. They secured the sacking of Putney’s MP Justine Greening as Minister of Transport, who had been vocally anti-Heathrow, as Putney is one of the areas badly affected by aircraft noise, from planes coming in to land (which are a constant background noise as I write this in nearby Battersea). They secured the set-up of the Airport commission, and now Heathrow is prominent amongst the potential solutions. This is remarkable progress indeed.
The Heathrow advocates have indeed secured an important victory over some of their opponents: and in particular those that suggested that London does not need a new runway at all, an important part of the anti-Heathrow coalition. They look to be ahead of the Boris Island advocates too; and indeed the obstacles to this radical plan look formidable. But almost unnoticed, the idea of a second runway at Gatwick is sneaking up on the inside.
Two important developments are bringing Gatwick into the picture. Firstly it has been taken away from the ownership of BAA, who also own Heathrow, and who are leading the Heathrow advocacy campaign, on competition grounds. BAA have never regarded Gatwick as their main priority, and would not advocate its expansion at Heathrow’s expense. The new owners. however, have given this airport new energy (it is already much improved). Secondly is the march of time. Gatwick is legally prevented from building a new runway before 2019; previously this had looked to be too far away into the future, but now it does not.
If that has put the option on the map, the Interim Report makes three major points in its favour. First is the most obvious. Many fewer people live nearby, and the airport’s expansion would blight many fewer lives. Second is quite a subtle one. It is that expanding Gatwick does not preclude any other options later. Expanding Heathrow would kill the Boris Island idea. Boris Island would kill Heathrow. I hadn’t appreciated this until I saw a table in the report explaining the impacts of the various proposals on each other; Gatwick’s was the only option with a complete set of green ticks. Expanding Gatwick postpones the existential battle between Heathrow and Boris Island, rather than killing one or other off forever.
But the third point is the most important one. The Commission has not bought the central argument of the Heathrow advocates, which is that the bigger the airport is, the more competitive it becomes. This idea is usually supported by graphs showing Heathrow in a life or death struggle for leadership with Charles de Gaulle near Paris, and Amsterdam’s Schipol. The emerging mega-airport in Dubai is spoken of in admiring terms, and the word “hub” is used with abandon. The Commission has spotted two weaknesses in this line of argument. First is that it is by no means clear that the hub model of airline travel (where passengers fly to a hub in a smaller plan and change up to a bigger one there) is actually the way of the future. The most successful airlines use a point to point model, and airliner technology is changing to make this easier. Second, there is no reason that the hubs for the world’s three main airline alliances need to be at the same airport, and that putting an extra runway into Gatwick would allow this airport to be a hub for one of these alliances, or even allow passenger to change planes in a do-it-yourself hub.
A further point is that the public transport links to Gatwick from central London are already good, and are likely to improve. They certainly compete with Heathrow’s, even though that airport is closer to the centre. Notwithstanding all the noise we get from planes landing at Heathrow, it is in fact much easier for us to get to Gatwick by train, for example – though by car would be different.
What tips the balance of the competing claims is the politics. Outsiders to west London don’t seem to understand how large the issue looms here. We (I’m no neutral in this) aren’t just fed up with the noise, being woken up at 5am on Sunday morning, and having visits to Richmond Park, Kew Gardens and countless other outdoor venues blighted. We are fed up with the constant pressure on us exerted by BAA and its allies, trying to deny what we feel, and trying to push expansion past us a one small slice at a time. There is no trust. Feelings run deep, and their are a host of marginal constituencies for all three of the main political parties. Gatwick no doubt has its own political ramifications, but it has none of the same scale of toxicity. Gatwick is a get out of jail free card.
So, you read it here first. The next new runway for London’s airports, and the only one for the next 20 years or more, will be at Gatwick airport. Hooray!