IN THE ongoing debate on aviation capacity, we have become gridlocked in a game of political poker. Nobody is prepared to grasp the nettle, despite the obvious benefits increased capacity would generate for our economy. We need international trade to grow.
The default position at the moment is against the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, but if an alternative is to be proposed, it must be worked up and costed quickly. Any move to expand an existing aviation hub, or develop a new one, would take a number of years to develop, fund and implement – and we cannot afford to delay.
While we continue to consult, our competitors construct. Paris and Frankfurt both already have capacity for 700,000 flights a year, compared to 480,000 at Heathrow.
To claim that Heathrow runs more flights to business destinations than any other airport in Europe is to miss the point. There is a reason for this: London is Europe’s business gateway. Our aviation infrastructure must reflect that.
The fact that Heathrow is already hitting capacity poses a whole host of problems for London, ranging from overcrowding to inhibiting trade with, and investment from, fast-growing markets. One of the few certainties in an uncertain global economy is that patterns of trade need to change. The winners will be the most agile.
This isn’t just a case of attracting business from these growing markets: we must also retain the talent pool and business spectrum that we have. Talented individuals and institutions based on expertise are increasingly mobile. World-class air links and aviation infrastructure are key elements of the offering to attract them here – and to retain them.
Opponents of expanding existing capacity suggest that it is a short-term fix. Yes, perhaps – but with no other plans currently being taken forward, it would be better than no fix at all. Increased air capacity, even if the will existed to go ahead, could take more than a decade to plan and implement. We should not reject new thinking, but we need to be mindful of time constraints.
Although technology has made it easier for business to be conducted remotely, air services are still a key factor when companies take decisions about where to locate. The teleconference will never entirely replace the meeting. The human factor remains essential.
There are always going to be concerns when new airport capacity is planned, and the environmental impact of new proposals can never be ignored. However, this must be balanced against the economic benefits for the UK.
We must plan now to ensure that the UK maintains and increases its hub capacity. This will serve as another foundation for growth, as a signal to global investors that Britain really is “open for business”.
Mark Boleat is policy chairman at the City of London Corporation.