Comment: Politics of airport expansion raises little hope of a resolution

An independent commission to decide on airport expansion could prove a mixed blessing as the issue looks set to be kicked into the long grass, says Ian Taylor

Coalition leaders plan to head off growing pressure for a decision on expanding Heathrow or building a new hub airport by passing the issue to an independent commission.

A review of the future for UK airports with no politician involved sounds like a neat move politically.

That is what David Cameron and deputy Nick Clegg will announce within days according to a Financial Times report at the weekend.

This would kick expansion of London’s airports into the grass long enough to leave it until the next general election while demonstrating Conservative and Liberal Democrat agreement on an issue that otherwise threatens to tear the government coalition apart.

An independent inquiry would be more likely to come up with recommendations that address the issue, and thereby suit a majority of the industry and business.

But the ultimate decision would still lie with government and parliament, of course. So it will be interesting to see how Cameron frames the establishment of the commission.

The prime minister is also poised to announce a cabinet reshuffle amid speculation those moving will include transport secretary Justine Greening. A commission would remove the immediate pressure on Greening and might allow her, an opponent of Heathrow expansion, to remain at the Department for Transport.

Greening has been ready to publish a long-delayed call for evidence on how to preserve London as an aviation hub for months. This was expected to appear as early as this week, having been held back twice already on the orders of Cameron and chancellor George Osborne.

Now the document may not appear at all as Cameron and Clegg seek to shelve the issue.

Pressure to decide on Heathrow or a new hub became intense last week as senior Tory Tim Yeo demanded to know whether Cameron was “a man or a mouse” on the question.

Industry and business have lobbied hard for expansion. Supporters of architect Norman Foster’s plan for a new hub airport in Kent were out in force at the weekend, with the Sunday Times reporting the airport would “take only two years longer to build than a third runway at Heathrow”.

This may or may not be true, but the question of the timetable – and the bill – for a new airport is not the biggest issue. Claims for the cost and the timetable must be expected to be largely fictional during the bidding anyway.

The real question is the planning and construction timetable and the cost of the infrastructure and dwellings required to go with a new airport.

The reality is there are difficulties attached to all the options: Heathrow, a new airport, developing alternatives or doing nothing. That is why politicians within a single party can’t agree on a solution and why the industry can’t either. It allows all sides to advance arguments in support of their own interests.

The key issue for Cameron is the coalition, but the Tories cannot agree among themselves either. London Mayor Boris Johnson supports a Thames estuary airport and condemns Heathrow expansion. Osborne supports Heathrow.

Zac Goldsmith, the party’s most prominent spokesman on the environment, will stand down if the party supports a third runway. Greening would do the same, but appears to favour a new airport. Foreign secretary William Hague was reported to have “appeared to indicate his support for a new airport” at the weekend, though the Sunday Times gave no evidence for this.

The question is now bound up with how Cameron breaks with the Liberal Democrats while maintaining their alliance until 2015.

Move or sack Greening and he signals support for a third runway that could enrage the Lib Dems enough to break the coalition that keeps him in office.

Industry and business will no doubt maintain the pressure and the press highlight every twist and turn. But is there a risk the sector could overplay its hand?

It is one thing to maintain the pressure when a decision is clear cut. It is another when a situation is this complex and nuanced.

The Tories support airport expansion in the southeast despite their current policy. Tory leaders are heading towards a go-ahead for a third runway and commencing moves to building a new airport in the next two decades.

But they cannot do anything now without forcing an election they would be unlikely to win.

A commission may mean the sector ultimately gets the decision it wants, but not for several years.

A decision any time soon would be unlikely to give an outcome desired by much of the industry – whatever that desire might be.

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