Let’s not avoid the difficult questions on the future of our airports | Observer editorial

Howard Davies has an onerous task in choosing whether we need a new airport or an expanded Heathrow

Sir Howard Davies, the man with the job of deciding whether Britain needs a new airport, must be looking with some alarm at the precedents. In 1971, after more than 18 months of work, the Roskill commission recommended that a four-runway airport to serve London be built at Cublington, near Aylesbury.

When Michael Noble, then minister for trade, opened the debate on the commission’s findings in the Commons, he said of its authors: “I hope that they may draw some comfort from one of my hon friends who said that the fact that he totally rejected their conclusion did not in any way diminish his admiration for the way in which they had done their work and presented their report.”

Their plan, of course, never got off the drawing board.

Committing the Conservatives to blocking a third runway at Heathrow was a key plank of David Cameron’s strategy to detoxify the Tory brand and prove that he would put polar bears before sharp-suited businessmen. It was also built on political expediency – he needed to win Conservative seats in the area. Further, it was a recognition that the building of a third runway would hurt Britain’s then leading role in reducing global carbon emissions

But with the economy trapped in a deep malaise Cameron is having a rethink. There is a strong lobby that suggests that UK plc needs extra airport capacity in order to boost future economic prospects. Also, the UK is on track to meet its Kyoto targets, albeit partly because of economic weakness. There is, too, an argument that the tax system may be a better way of reducing the number of unnecessary flights than a ban on building new runways. Flight travel is simply too cheap compared with rail fares – this is the fault of a tax system that gives an advantage to airlines.

George Osborne now firmly believes that if the UK really wants to build an economy that can properly connect with the rest of the world it needs more airport capacity. But the economic case is being driven largely by self-interested parties, not least British Airways, the British Airports Authority and the bodies that represent them.

It will be a crucial part of the Davies commission to identify the economic benefits a new airport or runway would deliver. Multinational companies make inward investment decisions on the basis of a whole range of factors, including the skills of the workforce, the strength of the currency and the generosity of state support for industry. Whether the chief executive can jet in direct from Chicago or Shanghai may be a marginal consideration.

However, those advocating the development of a hub airport may have a case. If Britain allows its one airport that comes close to being an international hub to become ever more clogged up while Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Madrid and Paris become transit points for Europeans, including enterprising Brits, wanting to get to the fast-growing economies of China, India or Brazil, there is a risk that economic opportunities will be missed, ambitions stunted, jobs lost.

However, if any British government is to press the case for extra airport capacity, it needs to make a convincing case for continuing to meet its ambitious carbon emissions target. As this paper said in 2008: “It will require a radical programme of wave and wind turbine construction, nuclear industry expansion and the building of underground vaults to store the carbon dioxide that currently pours from the nation’s coal, oil and gas power plants.”

Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence that this government’s energy policy is fit for that purpose. Indeed the government’s desire to pursue a dash for gas as a future energy strategy is precisely the wrong direction of travel.

Even if the case for a hub airport is established, Heathrow is not the only answer: Heathrow already creates all-but-unbearable noise, pollution and disruption for unlucky residents, and its transport links are groaning. Of those affected by noise pollution in Europe, 30% live in and around Heathrow. Is it really sensible to build more airline capacity in the middle of a major population centre?

There is a plausible case that bringing in as many planes as possible – the proposed estuary airport – over sea instead of hundreds of thousands of rooftops makes more sense. As importantly, a giant new airport would provide a powerful economic boost for an area where unemployment is high. Although characterised, until now, as a Boris Johnson vanity project, there is support from politicians of all persuasions to the east of London to try and create a hub – in all senses – which would address the historical inequalities and poverty to the east of the capital.

There is no easy solution. Davies will need wisdom and a good dose of political nous to weigh up the issues – the financial and environmental costs and any economic advantages. He should use his authority to seize the initiative and insist that the question of airport capacity in the UK be settled sooner rather than later. Otherwise, the likelihood of a repeat of the Roskill commission is all too likely.

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