Keep a new Heathrow runway on the table

Stuart Fraser
GRIDLOCK is often the outcome of public sector walkouts so we can be grateful that last week’s strikes did not, as feared, severely impact upon Heathrow.

Civil servants and others stepped in to prevent the lengthy queues and angry scenes that would have damaged our international reputation with both tourists and businesses.

As a world-leading business hub, London has traditionally benefited from excellent transport links to destinations all over the world. This is an integral part of our success as an international financial centre.

The investment programme outlined by the chancellor in the Autumn Statement will help to deliver the infrastructure improvements across the country needed to improve growth prospects. Crossrail and the Tube upgrade will also help to meet growing demand over the medium term.

But our competitive edge as an international hub is being eroded as we wait for decisive action to upgrade our airports.

The chancellor’s commitment to exploring all the options for more aviation capacity and support for a hub airport in the South East is welcome but we now need action to match this pledge. And if these other options cannot deliver enough capacity in time, the City’s view is that increased runway capacity at Heathrow should remain on the table.

Access to aviation services is a critical requirement for firms across the City and London as a whole. We must rise to the challenge of increasing demand, with passenger numbers across London’s airports forecast to rise from 140m a year in 2010 to 400m in 2050.

Extra capacity is needed, though it may require unpopular decisions.

The danger is that by the time progress is made other hubs across Europe will have taken advantage of our failure to deliver in time.

Already our ability to access key high-growth markets is becoming severely constrained. Better-connected hubs such as Paris and Frankfurt boast 1,000 more annual flights to the three largest cities in China than Heathrow.

This is important because UK businesses trade 20 times as much with emerging markets that have direct daily connections to the UK as they do with those that do not.

We understand both the political and environmental issues that surround aviation policy. Wherever new airport capacity is planned there will be objections from those likely to be affected or concerned about the environmental impact. It is, however, surely better to have planes parked on the ground than stacked in the air.

London is behind the curve when compared to our European rivals. They are already delivering increased capacity and we need our existing hub to work far more efficiently.

Interim measures are possible such as “mixed mode” operation – more intensive use of existing runways. Increased runway capacity at other airports, including Stansted and London City, would also be welcome but Heathrow remains – by some distance – our primary international gateway.

The government has pledged to show the UK is “open for business”. It is time the coalition proved it by taking control of aviation strategy and facing up to the difficult decisions.

Stuart Fraser is policy chairman at the City of London Corporation.