As MPs prepare to jet off on their summer holidays, there is one big decision that awaits their return: where to build a new runway in London and the South East.
This is a decision that has now dragged on beyond all belief. When the Airports Commission published its final report over a year ago, we were promised a decision would be made by the end of 2015. Then a final decision was delayed until at least this summer so the government could do more environmental analysis. Then this month, because of the political fallout from Brexit, we were told not to expect a decision until at least October. How much longer can this realistically go on for?
I would argue that Brexit makes the economic case for a new runway even stronger and more urgent than before. A Britain outside the EU must have the capacity to expand its air links to new markets so we can do more business with the rest of the globe.
Yet as reported in this paper only last week, new research by KPMG for Let Britain Fly has found our attempts to grow trade outside the EU will be hindered without a new runway in the South East. The research found that London currently lacks direct flights to 128 of the largest cities in the world – each with a population of 2m or more, so roughly speaking the same size as Paris or bigger.
What’s more, other European hubs, such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Madrid and Paris, already connect to 32 of these cities. It is therefore clear we are quickly becoming less competitive as a global aviation hub – and every day of indecision only serves to benefit our competitors.
Looking further to the future, the research suggests that the situation will get worse. We currently lack connections to 194 of the 309 cities that will have populations of over 2m by 2030 and our European competitors already connect to 41 of these.
By the end of the next decade, a number of these cities will have populations similar to that of London today – such as Surat and Pune in India, or Foshan and Hangzhou in China. Some of the missed connections identified are even their country’s capital cities – like Brasilia in Brazil and Baghdad in Iraq. These booming cities in growth markets are important to our prosperity because they are the economic powerhouses of the future.
If the government fails to make a decision to build a new runway in 2016 to enable us to connect to these cities, it would be much like the government not giving the go-ahead to build the M1 in the early 1950s, connecting London to Leeds and some of the other Northern cities – something that would surely be deemed unthinkable today.
Indeed, given the sheer number of cities we lack connections to, one has to ask if one new runway is really enough to deliver a positive vision of Britain post-Brexit as a great trading nation. Or following on from giving the go-ahead to City Airport’s expansion plan this week, should in fact the government not only allow expansion at our international hub Heathrow – the Airports Commission’s preferred option for a new runway – but be more strategic and give the go-ahead to a new runway at Gatwick too? In an ideal world, we probably need two runways not one, so we should just get on with both airports’ expansion sooner rather than later.
This is why I believe that, when Parliament returns in September, the first big decision that should be made by the Cabinet should be the runway decision.
This is a fantastic opportunity for the new government to demonstrate strong leadership, show it is able to make big strategic decisions of national importance and, following Brexit, send a clear message to our global partners that Britain is open for business and a great place to locate and invest. I would urge the Prime Minister to be swift and be bold. A new runway will benefit the UK economy for generations to come.