Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Leaving the door ajar for Gatwick has only helped prolong this tiresome political battle

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The Independent Online

If there was one word to sum up the British psyche what would it be? One suggestion: fudge. We’re brilliant at making the sickly, sweet confection, as any visitor to one of our tourist hotspots can testify. When it comes to fudge, the verb, we also excel, preferring the halfway-house, not making ourselves unpopular, wishing to do right by everybody.

The latest prime example of our collective weakness comes from Sir Howard Davies and his Airports Commission. They clearly believe in a third runway at Heathrow, highlighting all the advantages – £147bn in economic growth and 70,000 jobs by 2050 – but instead of ramming home that message and delivering an inarguable case, they say that a new runway at Gatwick is also a “credible” option.

Brilliant. After an inquiry lasting two-and-a-half years and costing £20m, Davies and his colleagues meekly hand the baton to the politicians. Of course, Davies will maintain his study was long and exhaustive. It was. And along the way, other alternatives have been ruled out – notably “Boris Island”, the proposal by London Mayor Boris Johnson to construct an entirely new airport in the Thames Estuary, and an extension to Heathrow’s existing northern runway.

But they’ve not gone far enough. In leaving the door ajar for Gatwick, they’ve presented an opening to those at Westminster opposed to Heathrow expansion. They can now seize upon Gatwick, and here we go again – still not decided, still debating, and still not adding much-needed airport capacity.

I say this as someone who lives near the flight path. The planes are a noisy nightmare – and more than that, what with the recent, plummeting to the ground of a stowaway, not the first time it’s happened.

Once, when I expressed my opposition to yet more flights, a then British Airways director said it was my choice, and by living where I did I’d made the selection. My response, that when I moved in, Heathrow was two runways and there’d been a commitment when the second received permission that a third would never happen, was met with derision. In this woman’s view, regardless of any past pledges, there should be a third, and in all likelihood a fourth, and the local residents have only themselves to blame for choosing to live nearby.

I’m also mindful, however, that aircraft are getting quieter, and that in his report, Davies calls for the imposition of tight noise and air pollution restrictions, a night flight ban, and a promise, made in Parliament, by the Government not add a fourth runway.

I’m aware, too, of the economic benefits of growing Heathrow, and the fact that the airline and business communities are so strongly in favour. We can either go forwards as a nation, putting on an extra 40 destinations at Heathrow, and opening up the powerhouses of China and Asia in a way we’ve never been able to before. Or we shift our plans to an under-developed airport, one that will never offer the same existing connectivity, and won’t get it with a new runway, but has the merit of being surrounded by fields.

Davies should have ruled out Gatwick, but his sense of fair play has seen him perpetuate the row that’s been raging for decades, between the Nimbys against Heathrow and the national interest.

It’s a controversy that has been fuelled, shamefully, by naked political cynicism. In 2010, David Cameron said “no ifs, no buts”, in ruling out a third Heathrow runway. It was a barefaced attempt to shore up the Tory vote in west London, and it worked.

I recall interviewing Willie Walsh, the former BA chief, and now head of the airline’s owner, IAG. Until the 2010 election battle, the third runway fight was going well. Then Cameron intervened, and got his reward.

“Look at the 2010 election results,” said Walsh. “David Cameron felt there were seats to be won in London if he came out against Heathrow expansion. After the election, the Tories had won seven seats from Labour and one from the Lib Dems, which was Zac Goldsmith in Richmond, so Cameron felt he’d taken the right decision.”

Five years later, and with a second, more convincing election victory behind him, Cameron must decide. But those same Tory beasts he went out of his way to placate in 2010 remain. They’re just as loud; unlikely to be cowed by anyone, including their party leader; and fiercely determined to shout down the third runway: Boris, now MP for Uxbridge, as well as Mayor; Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park, and London mayoral candidate; Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary and MP for Putney; Greg Hands, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Chelsea & Fulham; and Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary and MP for Runnymede and Weybridge. None of them lightweights, all of them representing constituencies affected by a bigger Heathrow.

If Davies had come down forcefully, 100 per cent, for Heathrow, Cameron would have had a get-out: “It’s not me but him, the man we appointed to make a detailed, expert review; so, yes, I know I said ‘no ifs, no buts’ but Sir Howard has convinced me otherwise.” He would have been able to point Boris, Zac, and the rest, to the Airports Commission report. He can still do so. And there’s no doubt which of the options comes out on top. But oh dear, Davies cannot help himself, but gives half a nod towards Gatwick. Cue an almighty mess, or as one senior Tory told Channel 4: “Howard Davies has dumped an utter steaming pile of poo on the Prime Minister’s desk.”

Ever polite, I prefer fudge myself. Either way, you get the picture. Heathrow should win, but Gatwick could sneak it. For the latter, there’s everything to play for. What a waste of £20m; what an indictment of our attempt to improve our creaking infrastructure. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, they’re getting on with building airports and adding runways.

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