Business leaders and politicians put more pressure on the government to build a new runway at Heathrow at a recent event organised by the Let Britain Fly campaign.
Stop the dithering and accept the Davies Commission’s recommendations was the message from politicians, business leaders and the chief executive of Heathrow Airport when the Let Britain Fly campaign hosted an event at Westminster in early September.
Until now, the independent campaign, which is endorsed by different London businesses, has taken an even-handed
approach to the debate calling for expanded airport capacity in the South East, no matter whether at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted.
But the announcement of the Davies Commission’s recommendations seemed to engender a more unabashedly one-sided and pro-Heathrow mood at the event.
At least the presence of three MPs at the proceedings provided an opportunity to gauge the likelihood of a quick government decision on airport expansion before the end of the year. A modicum of support for Gatwick also came from a handful of dissenting voices in the audience.
In this special report, NCE looks at five talking points from the event.
1. The time for arguing is over
Reflecting a mood which was overwhelmingly supportive of the Davies Commission’s work, Harrods managing director Michael Ward said the time for arguing was over.
“Because Boris [Johnson] didn’t get his island, could he please stop sulking and get behind this?” he said. “Could we realise that after three years, £20M spent and some of the most intelligent minds looking at this there is one solution, so could all of the competition form a line behind UK plc?”
Speaking on behalf of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Drew Hendry, MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey, also struck a note of impatience saying connectivity was vital to the interests of Scotland and especially remote Scottish communities.
“Our view is very clear, and I think you’ve heard it resonate from business and we’ve heard it resonate from people in Scotland as well,” he said.
“Get a move on, and take the decision because it holds everyone back. Aviation and connectivity internationally is just as vital to all of the nations of the UK, it’s just as vital to Scotland.”
2. Remote communities and London businesses see Heathrow export advantages
The MPs at the event representing remote communities and those London business leaders present agreed that an expanded Heathrow would create the best export opportunities.
“I’d love to see our Cornish produce - our Cornish seafood, our crab, our lobster - being exported in large numbers by air out of Cornwall to the rest of the world,” said Steve Double the newly elected MP for St Austell and Newquay. “I therefore came to the conclusion that Heathrow was the best opportunity for Cornwall to have that international hub connection direct between Cornwall and the rest of the world.”
Ward gave the example of £250,000 dress that Harrods had sold to an international visitor in the preceding week.
“Everybody looks at us and says: ‘Well that’s fine for the posh people,’” he said. “But that [dress] had many seamstresses and many people looking at that and it will be great not just for the top echelons but the whole of the UK fashion industry.”
3. But can connectivity be guaranteed by Heathrow?
Audience member Ruth Cadbury, the new Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth whose constituents live under the Heathrow flight path, wondered whether a third runway would guarantee connectivity to remote regions.
“Connectivity has actually declined in recent years, and when new slots have become available, they’ve not gone to new destinations, they’ve gone to existing destinations - more flights to New York and so on,” she said.
Similarly, Hendry said he would like guarantees that his constituency in Scotland wouldn’t be given a “here-today-gone tomorrow” service.
“In the case of Inverness, what we’re concerned about - and it’s the same for Dundee and a lesser extent Aberdeen - is to make sure that we’ve got some kind of guarantee that we will not be treated as we have in the past,” he said. Hendry pointed out that there had been a situation where flight slots from Inverness to London had been allocated, only for them to be withdrawn eight weeks later.
He added that he had asked Gatwick and Heathrow for meetings to discuss how contractual obligations could be made to guarantee routes to Scotland and neither had responded.
“Judge us by our actions”, said Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye. “We are working with airports across the UK to see what their needs are, how we can develop connectivity, and we’re working with airlines such as Easyjet and FlyBe to see how we can build that.
“We’ve announced route development funds to help develop new routes, we welcome the opportunity for public service obligation routes to make sure we can secure that connectivity and we’ve also announced from 1 January 2017 that we’re reducing the fares for domestic routes in the UK to help protect and stimulate the domestic routes we have today.”
4. Environmental and local concerns must not be forgotten
Although supportive of the case for expansion at Heathrow, Liverpool Riverside MP Louise Ellman, who sits on the cross party transport select committee, struck a note of caution.
“The cross party transport select committee looked at this issue two years ago and I’m pleased to say the bulk of the findings from the Davies Commission report really reflect what that cross party committee found,” she said.
“Yes, it’s about the national interest but there are very important local and environmental issues that are ignored at our peril. The commission does make very specific recommendations to do with noise and local community engagement, about local jobs, about local apprenticeships, about air quality and it is vital that all of those issues and the ways to address them are taken seriously.”
Holland-Kaye said there were “no showstoppers” in what it had been asked to do by the Davies Commission.
“We [will] have jobs and growth right across the UK by expanding Heathrow, and that is what the Airports Commission has said. But they’ve also said that not only can we deliver the right economic answer,but we can do it sustainably and we can do it while being fair to local people.”
He promised 40,000 new skilled jobs and 10,000 apprenticeships and a “world-leading” noise insulation scheme for the local community.
5. But will the government rubber stamp the Davies decision?
As the panel discussed the likelihood of a prompt decision on airport expansion, audience member Rob Gray who is campaign director for the Back Heathrow lobbying group, argued that most MPs favoured a third runway at Heathrow.
“There are 10 MPs attending an anti-Heathrow rally in October - but the last time I looked there were 650 MPs,” he said.
Holland-Kaye appeared to have absolute confidence that the government would find in Heathrow’s favour. “[David Cameron] set up the Airports Commission, this is his commission with cross-party support,” he said. “He recognises that his legacy is his long-term economic plan. How do you have a long-term economic plan if people can’t export, if people can’t come here to study, if people can’t come here as tourists to spend their money in this country?”
Gatwick Airport was not represented in the panel discussion but the Sussex airport’s communications director, Charles Kirwan-Taylor endeavoured to score points from the audience.
“I feel a bit like Cinderella at the feast,” he said as he asked how many members of the panel had actually read the Davies Commission report.
In the name of balance NCE spoke to the airport after the event to respond to some of the points raised.
Addressing the argument that Heathrow expansion was the best option for business, Kirwan Taylor said, “There are so many obstacles standing between Heathrow and its proposed new runway […] that any imagined economic benefit is likely to remain just that.
“Heathrow faces so many complex and interdependent construction obstacles, serious questions about finance and poor air quality - the showstopper for expansion last time - that there are serious doubts over whether it can build a new runway at all.”
On the question of regional connectivity he said: “The Commission’s forecasts demonstrate that an expanded Heathrow will serve only four domestic routes compared to seven today.
“These are points the Commission has chosen to ignore when summarising the strategic rationale for its recommendation.”