Call for action on aviation policy


The Government must aim for a secure and lasting aviation policy after "almost 50 years without effective action", aviation, business and union leaders said today.

The call came in London as the Government put the final touches to its publication on aviation policy, including consultation, due in the next few weeks.

The Government has accepted the need for further runway capacity in south-east England but is still opposed to an extra, third runway at the UK's biggest airport, Heathrow in west London.

This has led the aviation, business and union leaders - members of the Aviation Foundation - to fear for the UK's future economic well-being, particularly as one of the alternative measures, a new Thames Estuary airport, would take years to come to fruition.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways parent company IAG, said today: "We've had years of government inactivity on aviation policy and this consultation must result in a plan of action and the commitment to see it through - not another fudge.

"It's the UK that loses out while around the world they will rub their hands with glee as we stumble along our path of inactivity".

Colin Matthews, chief executive of airport operator BAA, whose airports include Heathrow, said: "Whatever decisions emerge from the next Government policy review, history shows they will not be implemented without real leadership by all political parties.

"The current aviation policy review is the last chance for Britain's political leaders to work together in the national interest and prevent the UK slipping out of the premier league of global connectivity.

"It is time for narrow political interest to be put to one side and for our political leaders to grasp the nettle and work together for the good of the UK as a whole."

The Aviation Foundation said that any successful aviation policy must:

:: Deliver a clear policy conclusion that can be progressed without further delay;

:: Aim for cross-party consensus and a commitment that lasts beyond the term of one Parliament and ensures the policy will be implemented;

:: Achieve cross-departmental consensus and support Britain's economic growth, consistent with our trade, tourism, transport, environmental and climate change strategies;

:: Be based on a policy process that has considered all options rationally and objectively on their merits.

The foundation added: "The tests are designed to ensure the forthcoming Government consultation on aviation policy does not become a pretext for further delay.

"While leading trading nations across the globe have quickly recognised that a thriving aviation industry is vital to future economic growth, British politicians have debated this point for almost 50 years without effective action.

"As a result Britain is falling behind as an economic powerhouse at the worst possible time."

Virgin Atlantic chief executive Steve Ridgway said that, in his 11 years in the role, there had been "not a single strategic aviation policy that has met the country's needs".

He went on: "In the UK, crazy taxation and ongoing indecision on how to deal with the crippling lack of capacity is stunting economic growth and having a strangling effect on tourism."

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "Aviation provides hundreds of thousands of skilled, well-paid jobs for our members. In these difficult times, such jobs are at a premium.

"Of course, it is vital that our environmental and climate change commitments are taken into account as we develop the sector, but I am confident that can be done."

John Longworth, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "The Government must stop tiptoeing around on aviation because of short-term political considerations.

"Unless politicians grasp the nettle and make some tough decisions, both our export and inward investment potential will suffer."

The last Labour government supported a third runway at Heathrow Airport, but this was ruled out by the coalition Government in May 2010, with ministers saying they also had no plans for additional runways at Stansted and Gatwick Airports either.

But the Government's stance has now changed somewhat, with Chancellor George Osborne saying in this year's Budget that the country had to "confront" the lack of south-east England runway capacity.

Earlier this year Prime Minister David Cameron said the Government was "not blind" to the need for more runways.

Last week he said the Government's position on Heathrow had not changed, although there was a need to ensure Heathrow operated better.

London Mayor Boris Johnson also opposes a third runway at Heathrow, and backs a "Boris island" plan to build a new airport for London in the Thames Estuary.

Another Thames Estuary airport plan - a four-runway, £50 billion scheme - has been put forward by architect Lord Foster.

A Department for Transport spokesman said: "The Government wants aviation to grow, but to be able to do so it must be able to play its part in delivering our environmental goals and protecting the quality of life of local communities.

"This summer we will consult on a new aviation policy framework which will set out our overall aviation strategy. Alongside this, we will issue a call for evidence on maintaining the UK's aviation hub status.

"The Government's position on a third runway at Heathrow has not changed."

Transport Secretary Justine Greening said that the arguments against a third runway at Heathrow had not changed since the Government ruled it out in 2010, and suggested that the UK may eventually need a hub airport with as many as four runways.

Ms Greening, whose Putney constituency lies under Heathrow flight paths, told the Evening Standard: "I don't think any of the facts have changed in relation to the arguments for or against a third runway. The impact on people, on congestion, on air pollution are all still there."

While supporters of a third runway were looking at a 10 to 15-year timescale, Ms Greening said: "My job is to say 'what do we need for the next 20, 30, 40 or 50 years?' What if we realise we need a fourth runway? Where would that go at Heathrow?"

She insisted she would not be bounced into a "quick fix" in the aviation strategy she is due to launch in the summer, warning that Britain is suffering the results of piecemeal decisions in the past.

"I think the mistakes of the past have been characterised by piecemeal, ad hoc and often rushed decisions which ultimately have got us into a position today where there are really difficult decisions facing us," she said.

"We can't have people come up with solutions if they are not prepared to say how those solutions would adapt if we need more capacity than we currently think.

"This is not a consultation about a third runway. It is something far more fundamental about what our aviation needs are for the UK."

Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle said: "The Government's continuing dither and delay over formulating a strategy for aviation is now putting jobs and growth at risk and the industry is right to be exasperated.

"As the aviation industry and wider business community has said very clearly, we need to achieve a cross-party consensus that lasts beyond the term of one Parliament to provide certainty and ensure any policy is actually delivered.

"That's why, to end the wrangling of the past few years, Labour accepted the Government's decision to cancel the proposed third runway at Heathrow and is not pressing for that position to be reversed. As a result, there is now the potential for agreement for the long term on how to address the UK's future aviation needs.

"Ministers should now listen to these growing calls for action and take up our offer to work together on a cross-party basis to develop a sensible alternative to the options they have already rejected and Boris Johnson's unworkable and unaffordable fantasy Thames Estuary proposal."