Comment: Can Davies Commission achieve take-off?

Comment: Can Davies Commission achieve take-off?

How much closer are we to new runway capacity as public consultation on airport expansion ends, asks Ian Taylor

Today marks the deadline for submissions to the Airports Commission led by Sir Howard Davies.

Expect a deluge of deadline day press releases. Think yourself thankful you don’t have to wade through the submissions themselves.

Lord knows it must have been a struggle to get this far under the weight of claims and counter claims issued daily by the competing airports.

David Cameron set up the Commission back in September 2012 after realising the Coalition’s pledge to allow no new runways in the southeast during this parliament (and his pre-election promise to veto a third Heathrow runway) would not wash. The business clamour was too great.

But how to perform an about-turn on an issue enshrined in the Coalition agreement?

The commission provided an elegant way to postpone a decision until after the next election, by which time Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne hoped to lead a majority government.

Two and a half years on we are almost at that point. Davies will report after the May election. But whether there will be a majority government of any political hue is debatable.

In the meantime, Davies and his commission have got on with the job, rejecting the Boris Island, Thames estuary option and honing the remaining possibilities.

In Davies’s words: “The commission identified a need for one net additional runway in London and the southeast and shortlisted for detailed appraisal and public consultation three proposals.”

It is the consultation on these proposals – a new third runway at Heathrow (as opposed to the old, previously proposed third runway), a second runway at Gatwick and an extended northern runway at Heathrow – which ends today.

This has all been accomplished neatly and, for the most part, fairly painlessly (other than for Boris who no doubt feels about the commission as he does about Jihadis).

But it has been anything but painless since Heathrow and Gatwick, in particular, unleashed death by press release.

In the latest exchange this week, Gatwick disputed Heathrow’s expansion cost estimates and estimated time of (runway) arrival – both no doubt worthy of questioning.

Each airport has enlisted an army of pollsters, analysts and local business groups to advance their cause.

In a single release yesterday, the Gatwick press (propaganda?) office told us:

“Londoners have backed Gatwick over Heathrow once again … A new document shows the breadth of support for Gatwick across business groups, politicians, regional airports, city analysts and entrepreneurs … [and] Gatwick expansion would have a fraction of the impact of Heathrow.”

All of this is contentious. Later yesterday Gatwick issued yet another release, in response to a Heathrow announcement, suggesting: “The government can choose a third runway at Heathrow but … there will be ‘all hell to pay’ if they do.”

This is much more near the mark – though I doubt Gatwick could escape some hell if selected.

Indeed, there is a growing feeling that opposition to developing Gatwick could become every bit as great as to Heathrow.

For one thing, the ‘no more runways’ lot will move wholesale against Gatwick. For another, the burghers of Surrey, Sussex and Kent will wake up to the noise and disruption on the way. Sevenoaks council in Kent withdrew its support for a second runway yesterday. Dorking council in Surrey’s Mole Valley declared its opposition last month.

In this context, easyJet delivered a hammer blow yesterday when it came out in favour of Heathrow.

The carrier’s opposition to raising fares at Gatwick to help pay for a second runway has been clear for sometime.

But yesterday easyJet announced not just that “the Gatwick proposal would inevitably lead to higher fares for Gatwick’s passengers”, but that “long-haul airlines want to expand at Heathrow and if they can’t, they will do so not at Gatwick but at Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.”

Ouch! That, from Gatwick’s biggest operator, will have hurt.

Gatwick’s response that easyJet’s position is based on “narrow commercial interests” was fair enough but could also describe the airport’s as it seeks new investment from 2017.

A further blow came from the Guild of Travel Management Companies whose chief executive Paul Wait revealed GTMC research among corporate travellers showed “massive support for expanding Heathrow”.

Politics remains the key issue. Davies set out, in his words, “to provide evidence that will make it very difficult for a future government to duck this”.

Davies is a former head of the CBI and no fool. I assume he will succeed in making it difficult. I’m not convinced a future government won’t duck it.

IAG boss Willie Walsh, also no fool, summarised the position perfectly late last year when he said: “Nothing has changed politically.”

Indeed, nothing has – if anything it has become more difficult politically.


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