When I originally compiled this blog on 12 November, the government announcement about a third Heathrow runway was officially due within the week. That decision, announced today (15 January), to approve the third runway and sixth terminal, was delayed for reasons that were made to sound environmentally serious, but actually the real reason was that the government knew it was going to face a tsunami of protest, and it realised it had not yet marshalled its defensive arguments sufficiently well.
Even back in November it was more less certain that the UK government was going to give the green light to a third runway at Heathrow. An interim measure would have involved moving the two parallel runways to mixed-mode operation to make airport operations more flexible, reducing the delays that have become endemic there. But transport secretary Geoff Hoon has thrown the local communities a crumb of comfort by sacrificing mixed mode, to the chagrin of the airlines who saw it as an anticipated solution to Heathrow’s immediate and chronic traffic logjam The holding patterns around the London terminal area will remain full of circling aeroplanes.
But neither of these decisions, intended to provide the solution to Heathrow’s dire capacity problems are assured in the long run by Hoon’s announcement. Between today’s go-ahead announcement and the actual early work on creating the runway, a period of at least five years will elapse, and massive political and legal challenges will be mounted to reverse the decisions. What does that feel like to an airline like United (to pick just one carrier at random) which has paid as much as £30 million for an additional take-off/landing slot there?
Meanwhile, during the autumn of last year, significant political realignment regarding the runway took place, and this may affect the timescale of what happens, though it is unlikely to affect the final outcome.
On 11 November, by coincidence, there were two separate – and very revealing – debates on closely related subjects: a parliamentary debate on the third runway issue, and simultaneously a debate at the UK Royal Aeronautical Society on whether the third Heathrow runway was the capacity solution for the UK’s south-east, or whether – alternatively - the country should finally take up an idea already rejected three times over a period of nearly 40 years: building a completely new airport in the Thames estuary area.
Not at either of the debates was a single absolutely original idea advanced. All the arguments about all the options for all airport solutions have been rehearsed a thousand times.
But the Conservative Party which, if current voter polls are to believed, will be in government by 2010 at the latest, in Autumn last year decided to oppose the third runway – a completely new line for the Tories. It also says that it will reverse the third runway decision when/if it gets elected. The Conservatives’ solution is to build a network of high speed rail services that would eliminate the need for domestic slots at Heathow. But the party doesn’t put a date on achievement of this monumental project, nor address funding.
The effect of this policy realignment by the Conservatives – including London’s new mayor Boris Johnson - has been to galvanise the already formidable but disparate opposition to the third runway, giving them a banner to follow. Meanwhile Johnson has commissioned his own study into siting a new airport in the Thames estuary.
This is a bit of a nightmare for UK plc because of the uncertainty it creates. Nobody in any group denies Heathrow is essential to the national economy, but nobody loves it either. Not any more they don’t, because of its congestion-related vulnerability to delay and inability to meet demand.
Basically, back in 1962 it was realised that London and the South East needed a decent airport, and Heathrow was not it. A four-runway Stansted was the answer, the inquiry decided. But that was shelved. In the 1980s that prospect was revisited, approved and shelved again. Meanwhile there have been three Thames estuary sites examined and rejected: Foulness, Maplin Sands, and - since 2000 – Cliffe.
This is the story of Britain and its politics: make do and mend. Grand strategy is not on the menu – ever.
So what’s really going to happen in the long run? Based on history and my reading of UK political behaviour, there will almost certainly be - you guessed it - more “make do and mend”.
Stansted will get its government-approved second runway following a planning inquiry that is not able to stop it. Heathrow will get its third runway because, although it is environmentally the most disastrous option available – in that Heathrow growth affects more people on the ground than any of the other options - all the governments since 1962 have failed to take strategic decisions. This leaves any government in power right now or in the near future, no alternative except to approve it, or to see the UK’s economy seriously “changed”, which most businesses today would translate as “damaged”. Then, some time after 2020, Gatwick will get a second runway also.
Why not the estuary airport or high-speed railway network? Because they’ll take too long to deliver even if they were to work, and the latter is not a foregone conclusion. The best hope for the environment is that the high speed rail network will develop in parallel with the enlarged existing airports, but as someone at the RAeS debate said, the estuary idea is “a dead duck”. The coastal area is a massive haven for migratory birds, which provides environmentalists with powerful ammunition to deploy against the project, and the birdstrike risk would be a disaster for aviation safety.
- Airline Business blog reveals how a Greenpeace protest coalition have purchased planned third runway land