N island nation, the ability to move people and goods effectively and quickly to and from our shores is of vital importance to British business”. So says David Frost, former director-general of the British Chamber of Commerce, and he couldn’t be more right. A culture that throws so many obstacles in the way of infrastructure investment has led to the UK facing an air capacity crunch that threatens its economic position.
Heathrow runs at 98 per cent capacity, with jets circulating for an accumulative 55 hours every day over London. It is estimated that the British economy is losing £1.2bn a year to Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt because our own airports in the southeast are unable to compete with increases in capacity taking place at other European hubs. Business fears that the UK will lose trade deals with emerging economies such as China if it does not do something about air capacity.
Unfortunately for our nation’s economic wellbeing, we have put off a serious discussion about the inadequacies of our present airport provision for too long. We should have been confronting these strategic decisions years ago. Even radical solutions such as Boris Johnson’s Estuary Airport could not be delivered in time to stop the slide against our competitors. “Boris Island”, a planned multi-runway airport that would sit in the Thames Estuary, would take 25 years to deliver and cost £50bn to construct. We need a solution that will at least help increase capacity in the medium term, so as to give us the breathing space to agree and enact a longer term answer, whether that be growing Gatwick or a completely new airport. Alternatives have been suggested: London Manston already has the longest runway in southern England, and with a high speed rail link to the Eurostar would have adequate accessibility. Other possibilities include Cliffe in Kent, and closer to Heathrow is Northolt, but that would require a re-alignment of the runway.
A possible solution that could be delivered with minimal disruption and at a realistic cost is the innovative idea of a virtual hub. The proposal would be the first of its kind, and has acquired the nickname Heathwick. This would require the construction of a high speed rail link that would connect Heathrow and Gatwick as one airport. The trains would travel at 180 miles per hour, making the journey time just 15 minutes. The link would travel mainly underground, hugging the route of the M25. The rail link would act as a transit between the two hubs. By linking the two airports in this way, short haul airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet would then be encouraged to move out to the regional alternatives such as Stansted and Luton. Stansted is presently under capacity, running at just 58 per cent. Gatwick would then become a feeder airport, with Heathrow as the long haul focus. Although no in-depth costing has been carried out on the Heathwick concept, initial estimates place the cost in the region of £5bn.
Heathwick is not without detractors. Willie Walsh of the International Airlines Group has already publicly rubbished the idea. He would prefer the revival of the third runway option at Heathrow. Delivering such a scheme is complicated further by the fact that the two airports are owned by different companies. However, politics is the art of the possible, and currently there appears little chance of the government reversing its decision on the third runway; and in the current economic climate there is not the appetite for an entirely new airport – although that may be the right long term solution. What might be possible is this proposed virtual hub, which doesn’t involve knocking down villages or carving up marginal parliamentary constituencies. The other big plus is the time a transit link would take to build – such a project could be delivered within a decade. The timescale for delivery has to be the biggest selling point. We need to increase capacity now, any solution needs to be delivered quickly. With Heathrow out as an option, an estuary airport decades away from being realised, with other large infrastructure projects such as Crossrail and High Speed 2 absorbing public funds, a virtual hub is a realistic option. Linking the two airports as one will also leave open the future prospect of a second runway at Gatwick, which will see its planning moratorium on future expansion come to an end in 2019.
We need to tackle the air capacity crunch, and I will be using my role to encourage the Mayor, the government and other politicians to put aside sectional interest and do what is right for the economic future of London and the country: increase air capacity before we sink further behind Europe and the Far East.
Victoria Borwick is an elected member of the London Assembly.
Our economy loses £1.2bn a year to Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt.