In nine days’ time, one man hopes to end half a century of government inertia over how to expand London’s airport capacity
When a select group of ministers, reporters and paying passengers boarded a converted Lancaster bomber at Heathrow Airport on January 1, 1946, they knew they were part of a historic event in British aviation. What they didn’t realise was just quite how significant it would prove to be.
A large crowd gathered in front of the Avro Lancastrian, codenamed “Star Light”, to hear Britain’s then civil aviation minister, Lord Winster, say a few words before the plane took off for Buenos Aires.
But as they settled into the 13-seater British South American Airways aircraft, they could not have imagined that they would be taking off from what would turn out to be the last full-length runway to be built in the South East.
More than six decades after their aircraft lifted off the Tarmac for the first commercial flight from Heathrow Airport, the aviation industry has changed beyond all recognition.
Heathrow handled a record 70m people last year, compared with 63,000 in 1946, when passengers waited in floral-patterned armchairs in former military marquees on the side of the airfield.
London’s six airports – Gatwick, Heathrow, London City, Luton, Stansted and Southend – collectively saw 135m passengers pass through their doors last year, while across the UK 221m passengers took commercial flights in 2012.
That demand will only gain altitude over the next 40 years, according to forecasts.
The Department for Transport, for instance, estimates UK airports will need to cope with 445m passengers by 2050.
But while the industry has taken great leaps forward in demand and technology, one crucial debate has remained stuck in the hangar since that day in 1946: where to build new runway capacity to cope with the extra demand.
The lack of progress hasn’t been achieved without a good deal of effort.
Since 1963, when a government committee shortlisted 18 possible sites for a major new airport in the South East, no fewer than 12 policy documents, commissions or White Papers have been produced to solve the thorny issue of where to build new runways in the London area.
These included the 1971 Roskill Commission, which recommended Cublington in Oxfordshire as the site for a new airport, and the 2003 Future of Air Transport White Paper, which supported a third runway at Heathrow and a second at Stansted.
All of the plans got precisely nowhere.
Groups such as the Aviation Foundation, a coalition of airlines and airports, point out that while Britain has been crippled by indecision over the past 50 years, rival economies in Europe have forged ahead with expansion.
Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam has five main runways, while Frankfurt and Paris Charles de Gaulle each have four. Heathrow, Britain’s largest airport, has two.
“Airport policy in the UK has been a case study in political short-termism. Successive governments have failed to take action and as a result our hub airport is full, limiting the number of vital connections to growing economies around the world,” says Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors (IoD).
But in nine days’ time, one man hopes to take a major step towards ending 50 years of inertia.
City grandee Sir Howard Davies, the former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, will publish the first report from the Airports Commission, a body set up by the Government last year to supposedly lay the tortuous runway debate to rest.
Although the commission will not report its final recommendations until after the general election in 2015, giving rise to accusations that the Coalition has kicked the problem into the long grass, Sir Howard has pledged to publish a shortlist of options in his interim report, expected on December 17.
This time, businesses and airlines are hoping the commission’s work will stick.
“I think a Prime Minister of the day who rejects the findings of that commission in 2015 would look very weak,” says Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association (AOA), the trade body for Britain’s airports.
Since it was set up last November, the commission has published five discussion papers designed to address the most contentious aspects of the debate – from how future demand forecasts are drawn up, to connectivity with foreign economies and jet noise suffered by communities.
The commission received 58 proposals on how to solve Britain’s looming aviation capacity crunch – a figure Sir Howard has next month promised to slim down to “just a handful”. Some of the proposals will be easier to rule out than others.
Among the suggestions received was a £12.6bn magnetic levitation train alongside the M25, which could link the five biggest London airports in just 24 minutes. Poor odds are also likely to be offered on plans for a new four-runway airport near Abingdon in Oxfordshire – close to the Prime Minister’s constituency in Witney – making the cut. Another scheme included a “drive-through airport”.
Flights of fancy aside, the bigger players have spent more than £1m on developing their proposals, indicating the high stakes at play.
Heathrow has submitted three possible locations for a third runway, varying in cost between £14bn and £18bn.
The airport has so far refused to back one single option, but has highlighted that two of its proposals, one to the south west of its current site and the other to the north west, would cause less disruption to local communities than a third, cheaper site, to the north, over the village of Sipson in Hillingdon.
The south-west option would involve building a 3,500-metre runway over the village of Stanwell Moor in Surrey at a cost of £18bn and would increase Heathrow’s capacity to 130m, up from 80m at present. It would require the demolition of 850 properties but could not be delivered until 2029, three years later than a proposed site to the north west, over Longford and Harmondsworth in Middlesex, involving the loss of 950 homes and two listed buildings.
The airport insists most of the funding for a third runway would come from the private sector, although it has raised the prospect of a £4bn to £6bn public subsidy to build and improve surface transport links.
Heathrow’s main rival, Gatwick, insists it could increase capacity in the South East for a fraction of the cost of expanding Heathrow.
Gatwick argues it could build a second runway for between £5bn and £9bn on land that has been safeguarded for that purpose since 2003. It has suggested three possible layouts for a second runway, but believes the airport’s capacity would be able to grow to between 60m and 90m, compared with the 34.2m passengers handled last year.
Britain’s connections to fast-growing economies abroad could also be improved by building a second runway at Stansted at a later date, Gatwick says. Heathrow would remain open under the plans submitted by Gatwick, but would not be allowed to expand – an approach it has described as creating a “constellation” of two-runway airports.
Manchester Airports Group (MAG), the owner of Stansted, has hedged its bets by pointing out to the commission that the Essex airport could double the number of flights it handles without any significant new investment in infrastructure.
Should the commission decide that the UK would best be served by a bigger hub airport, Stansted could be expanded to four runways with capacity for 140m to 160m passengers a year, MAG says. However, observers in the debate suggest MAG is lukewarm on the idea of a mega-hub at Stansted.
“At Stansted, to be blunt, we have plenty of spare capacity. The airport is barely half full,” Tim Hawkins, MAG’s corporate affairs director, said last month.
When the commission kicked off its investigation late last year, aviation analysts believed the debate would develop into a bitter dogfight between Heathrow and London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, who has proposed three possible locations for a new hub airport.
The mayor argues that only a hub will deliver the connections that the UK will need to remain competitive in future – an argument that is also promoted by Heathrow, but bitterly contested by Gatwick.
Johnson believes a new four-runway airport on the Isle of Grain in north Kent – in the inner Thames Estuary – would strike the best balance between improving the UK’s connectivity and reducing the effect of aviation on local communities. He has also proposed – seemingly as a fall-back position – transforming Stansted “out of all recognition”.
A hub airport on an artificial island in the Thames Estuary off the Kent coast – a scheme dubbed “Boris Island” when the Mayor first backed it – also remains on the table. If allowed, Johnson would shut Heathrow and turn it into a new London borough, accommodating 80,000 homes and more than 40,000 jobs, the Mayor’s office claims.
However, even the Mayor’s own advisers fear the tide may have turned against any of the Thames Estuary options, which have been fiercely attacked by critics for the costs associated with the scheme. Transport for London said a new hub airport, which would not see the first planes take to the air until 2029, would require £4bn to £5bn a year of net government spending in the nine years between 2019 and 2028.
Daniel Moylan, the Mayor’s aviation aide, recently conceded that the option “most at risk” of being cut from Sir Howard’s shortlist is a new airport in the Thames Estuary. He believes that Stansted could be left on the table to appease those who believe London needs a larger hub airport, but that it should not be located at Heathrow.
“I think the option that is most at risk, being frank, is a new airport in the Estuary,” Moylan said at an event organised by Insight Public Affairs. “If something is going to be ruled out, I think Davies is likely to rule that out rather than anything else.”
Others believe this month’s shortlist could be less refined. Stewart Wingate, the chief executive of Gatwick airport, fears the commission could simply choose to drop the left-field options, such as a drive-through airport, and ask for more work to be done on possible expansion at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and an airport in the Thames Estuary.
He is urging the commission to narrow down the options to just two runners – Gatwick and Heathrow – to reduce uncertainty for local communities who will face up to two years of “blight” before the preferred option is named in 2015.
“I think people need to know where they stand,” Wingate said. “At the earliest opportunity, Sir Howard should narrow that shortlist – the sooner you can actually see the real options the better.”
Another uncertainty preying on the minds of airport bosses and campaign groups is whether the commission will shortlist a location or a specific option.
In May, the commission published a list of “sift criteria” – factors against which proposals would be judged. These included the economy, environment, cost and people, although the commission did not clarify how it would prioritise the various criteria.
Several groups, including Heathrow and Transport for London, hedged their bets by submitting more than one option, which met the various criteria in different ways. For example, while Heathrow’s north-west option is cheaper, at £17bn, it would involve the demolition of 950 local homes, as opposed to 850 under the south-west scheme.
Aside from the official proposals submitted by the airports themselves, other parties have suggested how to transform certain sites. Heathrow Hub, a project backed by the City banker Ian Hannam, believes it is possible to extend the airport’s two existing runways and split them into four independent air strips.
Should the commission merely shortlist locations, some stakeholders are concerned there could be another lengthy process to whittle down the various proposals for each site.
But lawyers suggest it could be difficult for the commission to choose one specific option at each location due to the difference in detail between the various submissions.
“Are they going to shortlist options or are they going to list locations?” one source asked. “Originally we were expecting options, but it’s difficult to compare apples with pears. How do you compare options which vary in detail?”
Questions also arise over who would be forced to pay for a detailed business case and sustainability assessment to be carried out for an option that had not been proposed by the site’s owner – a task that would cost several millions of pounds.
Some organisations have privately expressed concerns that the consultation has effectively turned into a tendering process.
“That’s a very different thing. If you are going to ask people to tender for something, you have got to tell them what the something is that you want. How many passengers is it meant to cater for? What is the funding envelope?” said another official.
The commission has already seen off one legal challenge, from Stop Stansted Expansion, which raised concerns over the influence that could have been exerted by a former commissioner, Geoff Muirhead, over the shortlist. Mr Muirhead stepped down from the commission in September, after it emerged that he was still being paid £150,000 a year by Stansted’s owner, MAG, when he was appointed to help Sir Howard.
Further legal challenges are inevitable, according to some, although lawyers suggest that the way the commission has structured its work has been specifically designed to fend off a judicial review following the Department for Transport’s recent court battles over the HS2 project.
While the department could potentially face another challenge in court, businesses point out that the biggest battle will be played out in the corridors of Westminster.
With the commission’s final report not due until after the next election, there are no guarantees the next government will agree to fund the recommendations.
Businesses have already started lobbying the political parties to ensure that Sir Howard’s final decision will not join the graveyard of failed aviation policy papers and investigations that have piled up over the past 50 years.
More than 100 of Britain’s leading companies, including Aberdeen Asset Management, Land Securities, Lloyds Banking Group and WPP, last month launched a campaign, Let Britain Fly, urging the political parties to make specific manifesto commitments following the Airports Commission’s first report.
“We would like all of the political parties to commit to acting on the findings of the commission now, whatever those findings may be,” the AOA’s Caplan said.
It may be 60 years since the last full-length runway was built in the south-east of England, but it looks like being a few years yet before Britain decides whether it wants to build another one.