Boris Johnson’s word is “fudge-orama”. The Mayor of London first used the description last year in relation to the Prime Minister’s decision to delay plans to expand airport capacity in the South-east of England until after the next election. And the same could be said of yesterday’s interim findings from Sir Howard Davies’s Airports Commission. Not one but three proposals are to be studied further – two of which are for an enlarged Heathrow, and one for a new runway at Gatwick. Confusingly, however, the Mayor’s desire for an airport in the Thames Estuary – “Boris Island” – still remains on the table. To add to the chaos, Stansted and Birmingham remain “potential options” for any second new runway by 2050.
An indigestion-inducing confection, indeed. Ostensibly, the whole purpose of the Commission was to seek clarity. While Mr Davies may argue that these are early recommendations, that there has not yet been sufficient time to complete a proper study of an incredibly complex subject, it is difficult to see how we are any nearer to a definitive outcome. In passing the buck to an independent panel, David Cameron was hoping to avoid the controversy re-igniting before the elections; now, though, it is all-but guaranteed to be high on the agenda. With Heathrow ringed by marginal seats, a possible Tory leader-in-waiting in Mr Johnson, and the backlash from the shires over the Prime Minister’s commitment to the HS2 railway, the country’s infrastructure needs promise to haunt Mr Cameron’s re-election effort.
How he must wish for the authoritarian clarity of his Chinese counterparts. There, if the leaders decide on a new airport or bullet train service, it is swiftly delivered. Here, the debate about extra capacity has been rumbling for more than three decades. Such is the price for everyone having their say.
The greatest cost is to our ambition. The vision is there, but – rather than take tough long-term decisions – it is suspended in favour of the quick fix. We can enlarge Heathrow; there will be protest, of course, but adding a runway to an existing airport is easier and cheaper than starting from scratch.
The business community wants Heathrow and – despite the outrage from those caught under the flightpath – that should weigh heavily. The economy matters to the whole country, not just local residents, and if our largest corporate employers and taxpayers say Heathrow, then Heathrow has to be considered.
That, indeed, would appear to be the direction the controversy is heading. Having started out opposing the third runway, all three political parties have swung in favour, and now Davies’s commission seems to be veering that way, too. But the problem with Heathrow is that one extra runway is not enough. Such is the burgeoning worldwide demand for air travel, and such is the lengthiness of British planning inquiries, that by the time one new strip of tarmac is added, another will be needed.
If Mr Johnson can bring some detailed, compelling analysis to his cause, and introduce additional firepower from big business, he may still win. And yet yesterday’s report remains a disappointment: we were hoping for a hard-boiled plan and all we got was yet more fudge.