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Comment | The UK airport debacle in full glory

Grimshaw Heathrow

Absence of action on aviation capacity is rapidly moving beyond a joke. It really is time to act.

Delegates at New Civil Engineer’s Airports conference this week were clear: runway expansion is the single most important UK infrastructure project - above High Speed 2, new nuclear and highway upgrades and maintenance. OK, it was a biased crowd.

But where should this expansion take place?

Gatwick Airport corporate affairs director Charles Kirwan-Taylor told the conference why Gatwick is the cheaper, cleaner, quieter, faster expansion option. He also claimed the £211bn economic benefits attached to expansion at Heathrow is exaggerated, misleading and wrong. Only Gatwick can keep passenger charges affordable due to our lower expansion costs, he said. And using real numbers, Gatwick expansion actually delivers greater economic benefits for the UK.

Heathrow strategy director Emma Gilthorpe naturally disagreed, saying that expansion at her airport would keep it “at the vanguard of sustainable travel” with the third runway to be built not just meeting the environmental conditions laid down but far exceeding them.

It’s such a close call; in truth both sides have great arguments and there is no perfect answer. And our poll of our 150-plus delegates following their presentations showed a perfect 50/50 split in support.

The real warning shot came from regulator Civil Aviation Authority chief executive Andrew Haines. Government making a decision between Heathrow and Gatwick is just “the beginning of the beginning”, he warned. The big challenge, he said, will be to regulate an investment of this size: whether it is Gatwick and its £8bn plans or Heathrow and its £22bn plans.

“There is no track record of regulation being applied to something of this size,” he said.

It is genuinely unprecedented for there to be a major multi-billion infrastructure investment of this scale with absolutely no government guarantee or assistance. The nearest to it is Hinkley Point C. That even comes with government guarantee and look where that’s at. The nearest transport project to it was the Tube PPP. And look how that ended up. His point had resonance.

So the decision is tough; and the decision is just the start of it. Few speakers over the two days (other than from Gatwick or Heathrow) believed there could be additional runway capacity in place by 2030 as set out as an aspiration by the Davies Commission.

The reality? Well, the recurring theme through the conference was growth, growth and more growth. Airport owner/operator after airport owner/operator took to the stage to reveal how their current set of demand predictions had been wildly wrong and they are growing at record levels, eating into residual capacity at an extraordinary rate.

The immediate thought was what’s the point in demand forecasting – and demand forecasters. But get beyond that and the obvious point is that Heathrow and Gatwick both need investment and expansion – it’s just a matter of time.

Because whichever way you look at it, time is something we don’t have. Demand is growing and other countries are expanding their airports; recognising that good air links equal good business links.

And the UK is falling well behind. As Volterra Partners senior partner Bridget Rosewell told the audience, “good enough infrastructure is better than no infrastructure,” with the clear implication that right now, the UK is barely better than no infrastructure.

It’s just not good enough. Decisions need to be made and then the hard work – actually making the extra capacity a reality – can begin.

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