Beyond Heathrow versus Gatwick: The government should set airports free to compete for future growth

Charlie Cornish
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Let's clear London's airports for takeoff (Source: Getty)

The question of where to build a new runway in the South East has been stuck in the hangar for decades.

But the lack of progress has not been for want of trying. Far from it. In fact, for all the time that’s been devoted to this issue over the last 40 years, we should have three or four new runways to show for our efforts by now.

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 try to solve the thorny issue of where to build new runways in the London area. The most recent of these, the 2003 Future of Air Transport White Paper, supported a new runway at London Stansted followed by a further runway at Heathrow.

In the coming weeks, the government is finally expected to announce where a first new runway should be built. The choice between Heathrow and Gatwick will be the latest instalment in the long running capacity saga. While the government’s decision won’t be the starting gun for the diggers to start work, it is likely to provide some much needed clarity to a highly public debate that has probably cost the government and the two airports involved in excess of £100m over the last few years.

Read more: Gatwick gets my vote for a new runway – but why can’t Heathrow expand too?

The Airports Commission deliberately chose not to make a recommendation on where a second new runway should be built in the longer term. Once the government has made its choice between Heathrow and Gatwick for the first runway, it then needs to begin the process of setting out how and when further runway capacity should be developed, taking a broader view of the potential options.

The timescales involved in planning and delivering new infrastructure mean that it is vital the government provides a framework for further runway capacity to be delivered at the right time – not decades after it is needed.

Heathrow Airport
The runway expansion debate has been running for decades (Source: Getty)

Outside the EU, the UK will simply not be able to afford to procrastinate over such important issues, and we must develop more robust and efficient ways to deliver the infrastructure we need.

The foundation for this has to be a long-term, market-driven aviation policy which will enable airports like Stansted to compete freely with other airports to provide new runway capacity, backed by clear government statements on the economic importance of such infrastructure and the environmental conditions that would apply to new development. Government should be encouraging competition, not unfairly restricting growth at some airports while leaving others to expand. And it should also recognise that aviation growth is just as important outside of London and the South East – not least at Manchester, given its critical role in the region and its contribution to the “Northern Powerhouse”.

At Stansted, our focus over the last few years has been on growing our own business. As the UK’s fastest growing airport, we’re now seeing nearly 7m more passengers come through our doors each year than we did just three years ago. The deals we have done with airlines such as Ryanair, Jet2, easyJet, British Airways, Thomas Cook and TUI have seen us able to offer services to more European destinations than any other airport in the UK.

More European tourists visiting London arrive via Stansted than any other airport. Stansted also sits in a “sweet spot” between the rapidly growing capital and the UK’s fastest growing region, East Anglia, and is best-placed to meet the changing needs of London as its centre of gravity moves east.

The Famous University Town Of Cambridge
Cambridge in East Anglia is one of the UK's fastest-growing cities (Source: Getty)

However, we still have more growing to do on our single runway, which has a capacity of at least 40m passengers – and we will invest in the terminal space to allow us to serve more passengers as required. Our strong growth means we are already eight years ahead of where the Airports Commission predicted we would be and we estimate that Stansted will be full in the next 10 to 15 years. To meet demand beyond this, we would need to begin the design and development work for a second runway in the next two to three years.

In the meantime, Stansted will continue to be a crucial economic catalyst for both the South East and the wider UK and we hope that, following a decision, government will shift its focus onto issues which are preventing airports like Stansted from absorbing demand as effectively as they could be.

Read more: Get your passport: London City Airport is expanding in a £344m deal

A relatively small investment in speeding up the service from Liverpool Street to Stansted would bring the airport closer to London. Line improvements and optimising the timetable would result in significantly quicker journeys to the airport, encouraging more airlines to come to Stansted to provide greater choice and competition for long haul air travel, which for the London economy would be vastly preferable to them choosing Amsterdam or Frankfurt.

New runways have been few and far between – only four significant ones have been built in Europe over the last 20 years. Let’s now get on and get a new UK runway cleared for take-off so we can focus on the future rather than the past.

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