Forget Gatwick bluster: A mega-hub east of London is our only real option

Daniel Moylan
THE AIRPORT debate is hotting up: the last few days have seen the chief executive of Gatwick Airport practically carpet bombing every media outlet in sight, trying to convince us that expansion at his airport is the only game in town.

It sounds a good story (even if one mired in self-interest and distortion of statistics), and it may be enough to tempt Sir Howard Davies, chair of the Airports Commission, into a pronouncement that will ultimately pay dividends (literally) to Gatwick’s shareholders, while doing very little for the nation’s economy or European competitiveness. And Gatwick has picked the right time for its charm offensive – the Airports Commission is due to publish its interim report, along with a shortlist of new airport capacity options, in mid-December. But Gatwick is answering the wrong exam question.

The site chosen for airport expansion by Davies’s Commission will, over the next 40 years, inevitably become Britain’s mega-hub airport, with four runways as a minimum, comparable to our Dutch, German and French neighbours. So it is disingenuous of Gatwick to pretend that the choice is where to put a single new runway. Nor should Davies allow the debate to be cast in those terms. This is about the national interest, not the narrow advantage of one set of private shareholders over another. If Gatwick is willing to put on the table a plan showing how it could accommodate four runways, and what it would cost to upgrade the Brighton Main Line and build the new motorways to serve them, the airport could, at last, enter the national debate.

Until that happens, we can discuss the detail of schemes, but there are only two options that would provide us with the capacity we need: building two new runways at Heathrow, or constructing a new four-runway hub airport on a site away from settled populations and where it has room to grow further as the need arises.

The most common battleground between the supporting camps of these two options is over cost. There is a sort of lazy assumption that a new airport would cost mega-bucks, while an expanded Heathrow would be practically free. In fact, the costs of each are the same. The analysis for a new four-runway airport has been carried out repeatedly and independently, with the largest assessments (the mayor of London’s, by the by) placing the cost of a new four-runway airport at £34bn and the accompanying new road and rail infrastructure at a further £25bn. As a rough guide, it can be assumed that the cost of the airport would be financed privately, while the road and rail would be for the taxpayer.

But on Heathrow’s own figures, two new runways there would cost £30bn, while TfL estimates the road and rail access required to serve a doubling in passenger numbers would cost the public purse at least £20bn. This would include moving and tunnelling the M25 to make way for the new runways, a cost to the taxpayer of purely private benefit to Heathrow, since we have the M25 already. Meanwhile, Heathrow is busy blighting the lives of 766,000 people with the noise from its existing traffic. There is no way that more flights can be accommodated without increasing this number even further; you only have to say out loud the management’s assertion that “we will reduce noise below today’s levels at the same time as doubling the number of flights at Heathrow” to realise that it is farcical.

The figures for the two alternatives are almost exactly the same; both would be delivered by 2029; but only Heathrow expansion would leave noise pollution problems for close to 1m people. And only a new airport to the east of London would deliver regeneration benefits that would justify the public expenditure.

A new hub airport would not only expand and rebalance the economy of London and the South East, and offer abundant new connectivity to the UK regions, it would also add £7bn every year to the UK economy (a 0.5 per cent permanent increase in UK GDP), according to Oxford Economics. While there will be some dislocational effects in west London, similar projects around the world have shown that these can be managed to the benefit of the communities and businesses there. Initial assessments are that the 1,200 hectares the airport currently occupies could be redeveloped to provide homes for up to 200,000 people and at least 40,000 permanent jobs.

Davies needs to see off Gatwick’s bluster and put the option of a new location to which Heathrow can move firmly at the heart of his interim report in December. To do otherwise would be to miss a huge opportunity, while condemning the UK to a future of playing second fiddle to major, four-runway hub airports on the other side of the Channel.

Daniel Moylan is the mayor of London’s chief adviser on aviation.