The widely leaked news that the proposed “inner Thames estuary airport” has been dropped from the UK government’s Airport Commission’s shortlist has surprised nobody, because the decision was foreshadowed in the Commission’s interim report in December last year.
The only options remaining on the Commission’s shortlist are extra runways at London Heathrow and/or Gatwick.
Meanwhile, London Mayor Boris Johnson’s rising political star will ensure that the estuary airport plan – which he still enthusiastically backs – will be resurrected in due course.
The Commission’s conclusions and recommendations will not be presented to government until after next year’s general election, a carefully choreographed arrangement reflecting the political difficulty of this decision. In a tacit recognition that there is no alternative to increasing runway capacity in the London area, the present prime minister David Cameron has said that if his Conservative Party is elected, it will accept the Commission’s recommendation whatever it is.
The reasons for the Commission’s decision to drop the estuary airport plan are many, but the essential issue is summed up in seven key words in the Commission’s announcement today: “The need for additional capacity is urgent.”
The Thames estuary airport – widely dubbed Boris Island because Johnson has long backed it – would take far longer than any other solution to deliver.
Commission chairman Sir Howard Davies also makes much of the massive cost of constructing the airport and providing supporting ground transport infrastructure at a virgin site, the latter involving substantial cost to the public purse.
Johnson has reacted predictably to the news, telling the Guardian newspaper: “In one myopic stroke the Airports Commission has set the debate back by half a century and consigned their work to the long list of vertically filed reports on aviation expansion that are gathering dust on a shelf in Whitehall.”
The mayor maintains that a runway at Gatwick would only be a short term solution, and expansion at Heathrow would be politically impossible and environmentally disastrous because the additional noise and pollution will affect far more people there than they would anywhere else.
Air quality monitoring shows that the Heathrow area already often fails to meet standards or only marginally achieves them, so the future is dependent upon more efficient aircraft engines and better air traffic management (ATM).
Ironically, however, the chief executive of UK air navigation service provider NATS Richard Deakin has always pointed out that Heathrow expansion enables the most efficient overall ATM system for the UK south-east, and is therefore the lowest emission solution viewed nationally rather than locally.
Meanwhile Johnson, now accepted by the Conservatives to stand as a candidate for election as a member of parliament in a safe west London seat, has no intention of fading away politically nor of dropping his estuary airport plan, so it will remain a high profile subject for continued debate even when the Airport Commission’s final recommendation is published.
Johnson’s only concession to recent developments has been to drop his proposal that Heathrow should be closed when “Boris Island” is up and running, and that – instead – it would become “an Orly” for London.
This reference to Paris’ downtown airport Orly is Johnson’s concession to the unpopularity, in his promised west London constituency, of Heathrow closure, because the airport is by far the largest local jobs provider.
With Johnson now clearly set to be a Conservative Party big hitter – and possibly even leader – the “Boris Island” airport solution for London is alive and well for the future. But in the meantime a quick solution is required.
Remaining on Sir Howard’s shortlist are two new runway alternatives at Heathrow, namely a new runway to the north-west, or a major continuation of the existing north runway to the west enabling it to operate as two runways; and the second is a new parallel runway at Gatwick to the south of the present one.
In November 2010 this blog remarked: “I’m not saying a third [Heathrow] runway should happen. But I am saying it will happen.”
Then in March 2012, nine months before the Airports Commission was set up, the blog had this to say: “The option of a Third Runway at Heathrow is still there, looming dangerously because it is the quickest, cheapest workable solution to London’s increasingly dire runway capacity shortage. And the longer the government dithers, the more attractive the third runway option will become, until it becomes completely inevitable.”
The Commission has said today: “While we recognise the need for a hub airport, we believe this should be a part of an effective system of competing airports to meet the needs of a widely spread and diverse market like London’s.”
So unless the Commission changes its mind as the result of further deliberations between now and summer 2015, it seems likely that its recommendation will be one of the new Heathrow runways plus a Gatwick south runway a few years later.