Analysis: Government policy change on Heathrow has a way to go

The government’s strategy document on airport capacity in the south east will have to tip-toe around the idea of Heathrow expansion, but are the alternatives viable asks Ian Taylor

The Tories are preparing a reverse in the government’s policy of ‘no expansion at airports in the southeast’ while attempting to avoid conceding this would be a U-turn.

Most of the industry probably would not care so long as the government gives the go-ahead for expansion. But there is a way to go yet and some potential pitfalls – not least disagreement among leading Tories and the small matter of holding together a coalition with the Liberals.

The ban on airport expansion in the southeast is at the core of the coalition agreement. It was among the government’s first announcements and ministers have repeatedly insisted the issue is closed. Its adoption as policy followed both parties including rejection of new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted in their 2010 election manifestos.

Now we have David Cameron and George Osborne insisting they will tackle the issue of capacity in the southeast. Osborne led his Autumn Statement last November, pledging the government would “explore all options on maintaining the UK’s aviation hub status, with the exception of a third runway at Heathrow”. Yet even Heathrow seems to be edging back on to the table.

In his Budget statement last week Osborne said: “We cannot cut ourselves off from the fastest-growing cities in the world.” Two days earlier, Cameron insisted he was “not blind to the need to increase airport capacity”.

The prime minister insisted the UK must not become “just a feed route to bigger airports in Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Dubai”.

This represents a turnaround and industry lobbying is a major reason for it, as Cameron’s repetition of an argument consistently put by the sector suggests.

It brings the Tories back towards their more natural, business-friendly position from that they adopted for two reasons in the run-up to the last election: the vote in seats under the Heathrow flight path and the ability to outflank Labour to the left on an issue and thereby move the party to the centre as a signal the Tories had ‘changed’.

But progress won’t be straightforward. There are the manifesto promises and the issue of trust. There is the coalition agreement and Nick Clegg to save. And there are the Tories themselves and those seats under flight paths.

Take London mayor Boris Johnson who has consistently ignored official Tory policy and pushed the idea of a new airport in the Thames estuary – now popularly known as Boris Island. This has kept debate on airport capacity alive.

Yet Johnson, now campaigning for re-election as mayor, slammed a third runway at Heathrow as “an environmental disaster” this week, saying: “It would mean a huge increase in planes over London and intolerable traffic and fumes in the west of the city. It will not be built as long as I am mayor of London.”

Does that mean Boris Island or nothing, for Boris? Not exactly: at the weekend he told The Guardian: “I am not the slightest bit wedded to some remote archipelago in the Thames estuary.”

The industry should beware of hitching its trailer to Johnson, as Willie Walsh has recognised by consistently ridiculing the Thames estuary idea.

For one thing it would take a generation to come to fruition. For another, it would mean the closure of Heathrow despite what will soon be five state-of-the-art terminals and the express rail, underground and motorway connections to reach them.

The Thames estuary alternative, championed by architect Lord Foster, would cost a minimum £50 billion and be unlikely to open at the earliest before 2028.

What of the alternatives? An additional runway would be difficult to justify at Stansted, where traffic has fallen consistently since 2008 and there are no connecting passengers.

The case for Gatwick, the world’s busiest single-runway airport, is much sounder. But Gatwick is not a hub and, whatever its merits, cannot rival Heathrow.

There is no case for the pretence that Heathrow and Gatwick could operate as a single hub. They could not. The notion of “connecting flights” does not allow for a 75-minute journey between ‘terminals’.

The Department for Transport maintains there has been no shift despite the process clearly underway. After Cameron suggested last week that Gatwick was “emerging as a business airport for London, competing with Heathrow”, a spokesman insisted: “Gatwick and Stansted could be expanded without additional runways.”

So we will see a strategy document this summer outlining these and other options while tip-toeing around the issue of Heathrow.

The options will include the Thames estuary, second runways at Gatwick and Stansted, and greater use of regional airports – the preferred option of ministers until recently. Expect it to throw in expansion at RAF Northolt, six miles from Heathrow. Surely, it will have to allow for the option of a third runway at Heathrow itself?

These will go out to consultation with a view to reaching policy conclusions in a year or so, taking us three years into the coalition and perhaps a year from the beginning of political preparations for a general election in 2015 (barring a meltdown in the coalition before that).

The Tories will hope to win the next election outright. But there will be no guarantees after five years of austerity and falling living standards. They will need those flight path seats – and MPs under the Heathrow flight path including transport secretary Justine Greening (Putney), who led parliamentary opposition to the third runway previously.

The policy in the run up to the next election is therefore going to be interesting.

There is a final issue – one that has only just reared its head but could prove significant. The ‘cash for access’ scandal could damage the Tories in all sorts of ways, but on this issue the fall out could limit Cameron’s ability to make a policy reversal.

There is no suggestion of a connection between lobbying by the aviation industry and wealthy individuals paying to dine with the Camerons in the hope of influencing policy. Yet the implication has already been made.

Simon Jenkins, an influential columnist who edited The Times for years and is close to the Tories, wrote in The Guardian on Monday: “This government has proved alarmingly susceptible to lobbying and ‘bought favours’. This weekend’s strange raising from the dead of the Heathrow third runway option stemmed from the furious activity of BAA and its lobbyists … Revelations of cash for access and thus cash for policy are serious.”

People may dismiss this as a Guardian view, but Jenkins is anything but a Guardian reader. There could be a lot of hand-wringing along the way to an overt change in policy on airport expansion.

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