With political conviction for High Speed 2 (HS2) faltering behind the scenes at Westminster there is a rise in favour of resurrecting plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport.
It comes as little surprise that there is a new question mark hanging over the future of HS2. Any major infrastructure project in the UK, rightly, is scrutinised to within an inch of its life as it ploughs through a parliamentary process and hopes to dodge and appease planning objections.
It becomes a political hot potato as the realisation dawns on any supporting government that it is likely to face the early onslaught of nimbyism while the delivery timeline offers little guarantee that any success would be conferred upon it.
But more than that, the funding of the £32.7bn scheme is the most difficult obstacle to negotiate. The economic difficulties facing the country meant that, as reported in NCE in April, mistakes made over the robustness of the business case by analysts ahead of transport secretary Justine Greening’s January green light for the scheme will have sent confidence plummeting. The scheme has now been left with a benefit to cost ratio teetering around 1.2:1 for the entire network, added to which, the Tories have failed to come good on promises in opposition that 20% of costs could be covered by the private sector.
It is this funding factor that could be the catalyst for a Heathrow third runway coming back into contention.
Its estimated £9bn cost would be funded wholly by the private sector – by airport operator BAA – rendering the issue of public purse affordability irrelevant.
It is the influence of the private sector and business on a wider scale that could help trigger a full government U-turn on the development of a third runway – with the influencers not holding back from using the carrot and stick approach.
First, business groups including London First are dangling the carrot of a return to economic prosperity, pressing the case for Heathrow’s third runway as the way to help London and the UK emerge from economic difficulties as an undisputed financial powerhouse.
But then the stick: the simple fact that major international companies are abandoning London because of its over-subscribed transport links.
At a recent Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport forum on aviation, much was made of Chinese aerospace firm Comac’s decision to set up its European headquarters in Paris over the UK because the UK has failed to develop the transport connectivity it needs to China.
“The French have played the long game, winning against our years of indecision and now have over 1M more seats to mainland China than from Heathrow,” said Mott MacDonald director of aviation Chris Chalk. “In fact of all the Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries we are behind France and Germany [in terms of connectivity] in all but India.”
Despite the current transport secretary’s vehement opposition to a third runway, there is growing feeling that something has to be done in the near future to avoid crisis. After all, Heathrow already operates at 99% capacity, which in itself is bad for the environment as 60% of planes are forced into stacking before landing.
The French have played the long game, winning against our years of indecision and now have over 1M more seats to mainland China than from Heathrow
Chris Chalk, Mott MacDonald
“Government must treat London as a priority,” says the boss of one of Britain’s biggest consultants. “Who needs infrastructure? Business,” he adds. “And ask any business what it needs right now and it’ll say a third runway at Heathrow. Government must listen to that.”
And what other options are there? No matter how beneficial expansion of Birmingham airport could be, the idea that it will be able to surpass London as the destination of choice remains too far sighted.
And while Gatwick, Stansted and Luton all have plans to expand by making fuller use of their existing runways, business – backed increasingly by engineers – sees Heathrow as the airport that needs to grow.
The short-term need immediately rules out the various incarnations of a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary.
Despite the blind optimism of London mayor Boris Johnson and his advisers that such a scheme could be built in as little as three to six years, few involved in the construction of airports believe that this is a reflection of reality.
“The airport in the estuary is not going to fix that [lack of capacity] as we need it [more capacity] now,” says the consultant. “It’s not all that hard.”
The third runway prospect is more worked up and although it faces planning hurdles, there is still a belief that the project could be delivered in this decade, if there is renewed political will.
There is understood to be increasing pressure from Tory backbenchers on those in frontline politics to make the Heathrow third runway U-turn swiftly, but it could be a political hurdle too far for the current transport secretary, who as MP for Putney, Roehampton and Southfields campaigned long and hard against Heathrow expansion. So whether the government can take the leap of faith to dodge the political backlash to gain favour with businesses at home and abroad remains to be seen.