Virtually all MPs (89%) agree on the need for more airport capacity in the South East.
That was the finding from a Heathrow Airport-commissioned Comres poll that allowed the airport shortly before Christmas to boast it had broad political support for its runway expansion plans.
Heathrow released the data as it began another year of lobbying for the scheme, which was recommended as the preferred development of three proposed (two at Heathrow and one at Gatwick) by the Airports Commission last summer.
The government had been due to decide how best to tackle the air capacity crisis in the South East by the end of 2015, but delayed a decision until this summer.
ComRes asked 150 MPs for their views towards the end of last year. Almost twice as many MPs said they strongly supported a third runway at Heathrow than a second at Gatwick, according to the poll.
But a delve into the full survey findings suggests an different interpretation could be made.
Hinkley Point C and Crossrail 2 are the only major projects that enjoy more than two thirds majority support, at least according to the 150 MPs polled by Comres.
High Speed 2, High Speed 3, a third runway at Heathrow and a second runway at Gatwick all fell a touch short of the yardstick for support generally considered to be robust and democratic.
Indeed, only Hinkley Point C can claim to have the “strong support” of more than a third of the MPs polled (40%). Heathrow’s third runway enjoys “strong support” of just 30% of MPs polled. And that support falls away further when just London MPs views are heard – with an almost 50/50 split for and against.
Yet back in May 2013, the cross-party Commons transport select committee of MPs urged ministers to allow construction of a third runway at Heathrow – and even called for them to consider more radical proposals to build a fourth landing strip.
So yes, there is general agreement that more runway capacity is needed in the South East – it’s just a question of where. And there still seems little agreement on that.
Gatwick’s owners are still arguing hard for Gatwick, London mayor Boris Johnson and potential successor Zak Goldsmith are still arguing hard for a new airport in the Thames Estuary, and cases can still be made for Stansted, Luton and indeed Birmingham.
It all goes to prove the old “lies, damned lies and statistics” adage, and also goes to highlight the ever present need for a cold, dispassionate, professional explanation of the value of these major schemes.
It’s what the National Infrastructure Commission is here to do, and it’s why the ICE is supporting it so determinedly. Yet the Infrastructure Commission is not examining aviation capacity as part of its remit to examine transport links in London – as that was of course the job of the Airports Commission. The job has, in theory, been done. So why still no decision? The Comres poll – and the absence of a clear majority in support goes a long way to explaining why.
And also points to challenges ahead for those other major infrastructure schemes.