This government should not try to hinder Heathrow

Simon Walker
AIRPORTS are an umbilical cord for the economy – tourism, inward investment and export opportunities all flow into Britain through them. Any constriction, or lack in capacity, has a harmful effect, limiting our potential for growth.

Particularly when we are in the midst of double dip recession, we should be looking to the parts of the world that are growing, in order to gain access to their success. India, Brazil and China are already hugely influential in the global economy, and their spending power is only set to increase.

In that context, it is bizarre that we are paralysed as a nation when it comes to deciding the future of Britain’s airports.

This is not a party political problem. For years, governments of all colours have tried their best to dodge and delay the issue, fearing the criticism of Greens and west London voters. In many ways, the coalition is simply continuing traditional Westminster politics – tossing the ticking time bomb from one hand to the other until they can pass it on to another schmuck.

But the problem with such a game is that eventually the timer runs out. Tony Blair could afford to procrastinate on airports 15 years ago, but David Cameron cannot afford to today.

Finally, a consultation is coming up, after seemingly endless delays. However, despite its name, this consultation will not be a proper, open debate – the coalition has ruled out a third runway at Heathrow even before the discussion has begun.

In an age where taxpayers’ money is so tight that the prospects for infrastructure investment are limited, it is deeply troubling that the government is ruling out a scheme which has private investors lining up to fund it at no cost to the Treasury.

This is not a good way to make decisions. No one pretends that Heathrow expansion would solve everything. In fact, it might simply be a useful stopgap preceding a longer-term solution – which might involve a mix of approaches, from regional airport upgrades to a possible new hub airport.

Everyone understands the political difficulties for the Prime Minister and his transport secretary in making a decision that might be unpopular in West London marginals. But we aren’t asking for a guarantee to build a third runway – we’re just asking that the idea be fairly considered alongside all the others.

The current policy position creates uncertainty which is harmful. People who want to expand their businesses in overseas markets are left unsure as to the future. People who want to base their businesses near key airports are having to delay decisions on where they should be located. Most worryingly of all, the world is looking at us and seeing that we cannot make decisions.

When all the evidence is weighed up, Heathrow’s expansion may not be the right decision in the end – but we simply cannot afford to take it off the table when making such a crucial decision on our economic future.

Simon Walker is director general of the Institute of Directors.