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Heathrow decision: 9 talking points

The Davies Commission might have delivered its recommendation for a third runway at Heathrow, but the argument over airport expansion seems far from over.

1. Airport decision has became political again

Having kicked the runway issue into the long grass just long enough to win the General Election, the government now faces a decision which has the potential to be as politically divisive as the European Union referendum.

London mayor and Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip Boris Johnson has threatened to chain himself to a JCB to oppose Heathrow expansion while London mayoral candidate and Conservative MP for Richmond Park Zac Goldsmith says he will resign his seat if the government agrees with the Davies Commission’s report.

Given the Conservatives’ slim parliamentary majority, it is hard to imagine the threat of a by-election will not weigh heavily on David Cameron’s thoughts, as will the fact that six marginal Tory seats sit under the flight path to Heathrow in west London. Add to that the Prime Minister’s “no ifs, no buts” pledge to oppose a third runway at Heathrow when he was in opposition and it becomes apparent that any decision to rubber stamp the Davies Commission’s recommendations will not be taken lightly.

David Cameron

David Cameron

2. Long-haul argument and regional case for Heathrow swayed Davies

Davies acknowledged the considerable difficulties in building a third runway at Heathrow but ultimately the airport’s position as Britain’s pre-eminent long-haul and freight hub seems to have won the argument.   

In a video that was released shortly after the commission announced its recommendation, Davies said: “The main [reason] is that Heathrow is the airport that offers a wide network of long haul routes, which are particularly important from an economic point of view and which will be increasingly important as the UK’s trading links with emerging markets develop further. And that’s where the growth is going to be.”

Davies also suggested expanding Heathrow would be the best way to address the problems created by Britain’s two-speed economy. “Other UK airports are increasingly squeezed out of Heathrow, with passengers from the nations and regions obliged to transfer through other European airports, or Middle Eastern hubs. That costs them time and money, and is off-putting to inward investors.”

This view was given some credibility at this week’s NCE Airport Development, Design and Engineering conference, which took place on the day of the Davies announcement. Speaking at the event, Alex Lake, founder of airport consultancy Fjori, explained how lack of runway capacity at Heathrow hampers UK regional airports.

“Regional airports often rely upon slot availability at London airports and not being able to get access into airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick, because good landing slots can be so expensive, can make regional airports unviable,” he said. “So it is vital that capacity is provided at airports that have fast connections into London so that regional airports can benefit from this.”

Sir Howard Davies Heathrow expansion video still

Sir Howard Davies Heathrow speaking in a video after the announcement. (Click on image to watch video).

3. Package of measures: rabbit out of the hat or undeliverable caveats?

To make the Heathrow recommendation more palatable, the Commission recommended a package of measures including a ban on night flights, a legally enforceable “noise envelope” and a noise levy to fund a more generous set of compensation and mitigation schemes. Davies also suggested an expanded Heathrow ought to have a community engagement board based on the examples of Amsterdam and Frankfurt.  

Some have described these measures as the “rabbit out of the hat” in the Davies report while others have been less favourable. Speaking at the NCE Airports Conference, Boris Johnson’s aviation adviser, Daniel Moylan, said Davies had made a recommendation subject to a host of “undeliverable caveats”.

4. Gatwick will keep fighting

Davies conceded that Gatwick presented a “plausible case” for expansion, and chief executive Stewart Wingate immediately came out fighting, insisting his airport was “still in the race”. His runway two development director Raymond Melee was no less feisty at the NCE Airports conference on Thursday.

“From our point of view we are still in the race and doing everything we can to beat the competition,” said Melee. “We welcome competition; we love it.”

Gatwick’s hopes now rest on persuading government not to back Davies’ recommendation; something it is confident it can do, given the environmental challenges Heathrow faces.

“We’re delighted that Davies concluded that Gatwick is deliverable and affordable. But we don’t agree with his recommendation. We do not believe that a third runway at Heathrow can ever be legal or deliverable. We’ve been here before; it’s the same argument re-run.

“So we think that by moving forward we are helping push something that is deliverable. Gatwick is faster to build, is cleaner, greener and doesn’t involve any extra taxpayer funding,” he said.

Melee also highlighted competition issues. The government broke up the former British Airports Authority BAA, forcing it to sell Gatwick to create better competition between the London airports. Gatwick fears a third runway at Heathrow will restore Heathrow’s monopoly position.

“Our other concern is that Davies is granting Heathrow the ability to become a monopoly again. We believe expanding Gatwick will create better competition, better options and give London two world class airports.

“So we’re confident that government, when it makes its decision, will choose Gatwick.”

Heathrow hub

Artist’s impression of Heathrow Hub proposal

5. Is a Heathrow Hybrid a possibility?

Described by Davies as an “imaginative idea” that has “usefully opened up thinking” about the way Heathrow operates, the backers of the alternative Heathrow Hub concept are not standing down either.

Publicly they have said they will spend the next few months continuing to talk to government to persuade them of the benefits of their scheme – and notably the fact that it is £3bn cheaper than the official Heathrow option.

As Kevin Harman, Heathrow Hub communications director told NCE’s Airport Development, Design & Engineering conference, “We feel Davies has landed at the right airport but on the wrong runway. So we are going to work with government over the next few months to persuade them of our arguments. The Airports Commission confirms we have credible scheme; a deliverable scheme; and our scheme is £3bn cheaper.”

The Heathrow Hub scheme also involves demolishing far fewer homes; and that was one of the arguments that ultimately swung the route of the UK’s last piece of major greenfield infrastructure – High Speed 1 – towards a terminus in St Pancras.

“At the moment we are still in play and we believe we have a very innovative solution,” Harman told the conference.

So publicly they are not giving up. And privately Heathrow Hub also expects the phone to start ringing as Heathrow seeks to incorporate many of its ideas around transport planning into its official scheme. So some sort of hybrid is far from a distant possibility.

6. Boris Island hasn’t necessarily gone away either

A brand new airport in the Thames Estuary, while appealing in theory, is unfeasibly expensive, highly problematic in environmental terms and would be hugely disruptive for many businesses and communities. So says Davies’ report. But London mayor Boris Johnson is refusing to let his idea go, as this was made clear by his aviation advisor Daniel Moylan at the this week’s NCE conference.

“If I can do one thing today it is to destroy the myth that Davies has given a clear recommendation. He has not given a clear recommendation. He has given a recommendation subject to a host of caveats.

“And expensive though it is, a whole new hub airport is the only genuine solution. There is nothing negative about what Boris has been saying these last seven years. It is just a bigger picture than where you stick 3km of Tarmac.”

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson opposes Heathrow third runway

7. Boris versus Davies, Round 1

As evidenced above, the arguments for and against Heathrow appear to be turning into an increasingly personal spat between Sir Howard Davies and Boris Johnson. In a deliciously veiled attack, Davies urged the government “to look below the headlines from one or two people and to look at the shading of views of people around Heathrow.” In a slightly more overt foray, he said “We have talked to real people as well as to the mayor.”

Responding to Davies, Johnson, who was elected as Mayor on a manifesto pledging to oppose the third runway, said the Davies report could be “judicially reviewed from here to Kingdom come”.

It’s not entirely implausible to imagine a scenario in which Heathrow’s proposed expansion will become bogged down in a legal quagmire just long enough for Johnson to take over from David Cameron as prime minister. If that is the case, who would bet against him attempting to have the last laugh over Davies by resurrecting his proposal for an airport in the Thames Estuary at that stage?

8. Inaction isn’t an option

Given the pro-growth tone of his report, it was hardly surprising that Davies suggested the runway expansion decision was already long overdue.  

“You should not wait until airports have been full for 10 years before planning an expansion,” he said. “We are in a suboptimal position and we are losing ground on connectivity with new routes.”

Similarly, the Institution of Civil Engineers urged a fast response. “The government commissioned a vast, comprehensive review in order to establish the best expansion option for the UK, and it now has a clear, firm recommendation,” said director general Nick Baveystock. “The key issue is now implementation. A courageous and strategic decision is needed – and needed swiftly – if we are to avoid yet more delay and uncertainty around the future of the UK’s hub capacity.” 

Whether this will happen is a moot point. Notwithstanding the substantial political opposition, residents near the airport have already launched a legal challenge to the way the commission has considered the pollution and noise impact of a new runway.

Heathrow airport's third runway by day

Source: Heathrow airport

Artist’s impression of Heathrow airport’s third runway by day

9. The construction and engineering profession can now play its part.

“We need industry CEOs to get behind this,” Richard Robinson, Aecom chief executive for civil infrastructure, EMEA & India and founding signatory to the Let Britain Fly campaign told the NCE conference.

“It would be sad to think it was beyond the wit of this industry to find solution’s to those caveats placed on Heathrow,” he said. “Davies has produced an excellent, fact-based report. Government will back it.”

“It has taken three years to arrive at today’s recommendation – the UK simply cannot afford further delays,” he added, urging industry to throw its weight behind Davies’ recommendation.

“As a country we are already falling behind global rivals with greater aviation capacity. The UK has made good progress in high-speed rail, with HS2 and Crossrail being pioneering examples of how infrastructure can bolster the UK economy. The challenge now is to improve connections to the rest of the world so the UK’s ability to compete on the global stage is not further hampered by years of deferred and delayed decisions,” he said.

Readers' comments (3)

  • I'm surprised that nobody (except me) has come up with the idea of Heathwick (or should it be Gatrow). The two airports are only 25 miles apart as the crow flies. With a second runway at Gatwick and a high-speed rail tunnel between the two (journey time less than 10 minutes - quicker than getting between Terminals 4 and 5) the two airports could operate as a single four-runway airport. Having just built Crossrail through central London the tunnelling should be a piece of cake.

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  • Heathwick has been suggested previously and was rejected as an option: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/transport/Aviation-Strategy-Volume-I.pdf

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  • David Harland's comment (above) is so near to what I thought I had written, I thought it was my comment at first ! However, I would think it would be much cheaper to build a direct link mostly at or above ground, rather than beneath. But that is mere detail; the principle, however, is absolutely right.

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