City Matters: Delaying a decision on airports threatens London’s role on the global stage

 
Mark Boleat
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IT HAS not been a good week for airports, airlines or passengers. Not only did an air traffic control glitch lead to hundreds of flights across the country being cancelled, but thick fog also later caused significant delays and disruption in the South East.

As the industry deals with the backlog, it seems somehow fitting that the Airports Commission, led by Sir Howard Davies, is set to publish its long-awaited interim report tomorrow. This will, hopefully, be an important milestone towards UK aviation policy finally getting off the ground.

The report is expected to shortlist a number of potential options as part of a strategic long-term vision to deliver increased capacity across the South East. Each of these options – most realistically Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted or the Thames estuary scheme – is likely to prove politically challenging in its own way.

Nonetheless, it is critical that these obstacles are urgently overcome to maintain London’s role as a leading global business centre. Kicking the decision deeper into the long grass would risk driving away the international trade and inward investment that the government is working to secure.

Heathrow is already operating at close to capacity, while rival hub airports in Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam have been adding services to an increasing range of high growth markets. Demand for air travel to new routes will continue to increase as the patterns of trade in the global economy change.

Access to these markets is critical to international businesses. This situation cannot be allowed to deteriorate further by standing still while our rivals build for the future. If London is to remain Europe’s business gateway, our aviation policy must be fit for purpose – not just now but for the long haul.

It has been reported that the Airports Commission will call for emergency measures to boost capacity, including more night flights at Heathrow or increasingly intensive use of its runways. Davies is also said to be calling for £200m of investment in rail and road connections to build on the revamp of Gatwick’s railway station and improvements to the Brighton line outlined in the National Infrastructure Plan.

These short-term measures would be welcome, but are insufficient on their own to avoid a major capacity crunch. Infrastructure is a critical component of the success of any city, especially one looking to compete on the global stage.

Businesses of all sizes across London need cutting-edge connectivity. A new high-speed broadband voucher scheme for SMEs, launched in the City of London and five other London boroughs last week as part of the government’s Super-Connected Cities initiative, demonstrates that policymakers understand this need (www.connectionvouchers.co.uk/london).

They now need to translate this into concrete steps – or, more precisely, concrete runways – when it comes to aviation in the South East. The work of Davies and his colleagues is a good starting place. His shortlist should define the next stage of the debate. This is an area where there should be evidence-based policy making, not policy-based evidence seeking.

Mark Boleat is policy chairman of the City of London Corporation.