Boris Johnson launched an intemperate and scathing attack on the Government’s “irrelevant” and “myopic” Airports Commission, after it firmly rejected his cherished plan for a £90bn Heathrow replacement to be built in the Thames Estuary.
Sir Howard Davies, the chairman of the Commission, said that after a detailed study it had concluded that the proposal for a new four-runway airport – dubbed “Boris Island” – had “substantial disadvantages that collectively outweigh its potential benefits”.
He said the Commission had concluded that the only sensible options to increase airport capacity in the South-east of England were to build a new runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick. A final recommendation between the sites will be made after the next election.
But Mr Johnson refused to accept the Commission’s findings and predicted that, like the Channel Tunnel, a new airport for London was an idea whose time would come.
“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,” he said.
“Gatwick is not a long-term solution and Howard Davies must explain to the people of London how he can possibly envisage that an expansion of Heathrow, which would create unbelievable levels of noise, blight and pollution, is a better idea than a new airport to the east of London that he himself admits is visionary, and which would create the jobs and growth this country needs to remain competitive.
“It remains the only credible solution, any process that fails to include it renders itself pretty much irrelevant, and I’m absolutely certain that it is the option that will eventually be chosen.”
He added: “In my view, it is a very temporary setback. No more than the Channel Tunnel was dead 100 years ago when it was first projected.”
But Sir Howard said the commission had “serious doubts” that a very large airport in the Thames estuary was deliverable.
“We think it’s too risky,” he said. “The logistical challenges of shifting an airport 70 miles across London are immense. There is a strong chance you would never actually get it built. The economic disruption would be huge and there are environmental hurdles which it may prove impossible, or very time-consuming, to surmount.
“Even the least ambitious version of the scheme would cost £70bn to £90bn, with much greater public expenditure involved than in other options – probably some £30bn to £60bn in total.”
He added: “There will be those who argue that the Commission lacks ambition and imagination. We are ambitious for the right solution. The need for additional capacity is urgent. We need to focus on solutions which are deliverable, affordable, and set the right balance for the future of aviation in the UK.”
The rejection of the estuary scheme will leave just three options on the table – two at Heathrow and one at Gatwick. By asking the Commission to report after 2015, the Government hopes to reduce the political controversy attached to any redevelopment of Heathrow – still the most likely option – which worries both Labour and the Conservatives.
It could also prove problematic for Mr Johnson if he gets selected to stand for the Conservatives in Uxbridge at the next election. The constituency has a large number of people directly and indirectly employed by Heathrow but who would also suffer from additional noise.