Extending London’s airport capacity will be a key issue for the next mayor. It is not something that we can afford to keep pushing into the long grass.
Already London business is missing out: last year, Germany overtook the UK for new investments – disappointing, but hardly surprising considering it has significantly more connections to developing markets in China, India and Latin America. In fact, London has fewer weekly flights than its European rivals to most of the emerging market economies.
We have been overtaken by the likes of Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt, all of which have more runway capacity than Heathrow. As a result, the capital and the surrounding area face an air-capacity shortfall of 16 million by 2030 and 57 million by 2040.
There are no easy options when it comes to airport expansion, but the decision must be carefully considered and made according to the needs of London. Politics should be taken out of the picture - that’s why it was right to set up the independent Airports Commission, led by Sir Howard Davies, to make a recommendation on this.
When politicians convene a panel of experts to make a recommendation, you would expect them to listen to it. It is arrogant for any politician to claim they have a better understanding of London’s aviation needs than an expert panel that has spent the last three years studying the issue in depth. Yet that is what is happening.
On Tuesday, Sadiq Khan came out against expansion of Heathrow and said he instead favoured new capacity at Gatwick.
This was surprising. Sadiq, who is a friend and a colleague, supported Heathrow expansion when he was transport secretary in 2009, when it was included in the 2010 Labour manifesto, as a shadow minister for the last five years, and when appearing on television just a few months ago.
Now, just seven days after Zac Goldsmith announced his candidacy for Mayor, Sadiq has come out against it. There are strong arguments in favour of expanding either airport – or both of them – and there needs to be a serious and open debate about it. But that debate must be based entirely on what is best for London’s future, not on transparent attempts at courting votes.
Making crude political calculations on an important issue like this is the kind of posturing that Londoners rightly hate.
That’s not to say politicians won’t have a sense of which option they favour. I have said from the start that, after consulting with London businesses, passengers, trade unions and airlines, my instinct is that Londoners want Heathrow expansion to go ahead. But I will wait for the experts to make a recommendation.
I don’t think for a minute that I am better qualified than them to make this decision - and I will not play politics with London’s future. The decision will affect the lives of many thousands of Londoners, and their livelihoods and wellbeing should not be sacrificed on the altar of mayoral ambitions.
There are serious issues around noise and pollution that needs addressing. There should be no new runway until these issues have been addressed, but from the evidence I has seen they are solvable.
Last year I tabled a motion in parliament calling for an independent aviation noise regulator to be created. It is these kind of actions, not just more hand-wringing, that will allow us to move forward with expanding capacity while also mitigating possible negatives. Anyone who says these issues cannot be tackled is being deeply unambitious in their vision for London.
Sadiq said that the controversy around Heathrow is enough to ensure it should not go ahead. I disagree. Yes, Heathrow expansion may be controversial, but what London needs is a bold mayor willing to take the tough decisions we need to take for the future of our great city, not one who turns away from a fight or dodges anything that might be politically risky. It’s why, for example, I have been honest about the need to review some parts of the greenbelt that don’t live up to the name, and it’s why I will fight for expansion of whatever airport Davies recommends – however difficult that might be.
Both are great airports, and both have the potential to be even better. So too, we should not forget, does Stanstead – which currently operates at barely more than half its current capacity, and desperately needs investment in its transport links.
This is a serious issue that needs a serious debate from those who want to be the next mayor. What candidates must not do – and what Londoners will not forgive - is playing insider party politics over an issue that is so important to London’s future.