John Stewart, chair of AirportWatch, writes about the government’s recent remarks on airport expansion and aviation, following today’s budget.
John Stewart is the chair of AirportWatch
George Osborne confirmed in today’s budget (pdf) that new runways are back on the government’s agenda. He said Britain needed to “confront the lack of airport capacity” in the South East of England.
It echoed what David Cameron said in a speech (£) a few days ago:
“I’m not blind to the need to increase airport capacity, particularly in the South East.”
It means the draft aviation policy, which the Department for Transport is expected to publish within a few days, will look very different from the policy announced just after the election: no new runways in the South East.
The pressure on the government to reverse that policy has been immense with a coordinated series of reports, articles and speeches coming from the aviation industry and some of its supporters in big business, including sections of the Conservative Party.
That intense lobbying has persuaded the government to look again at the question of airport capacity. What it has failed to do so far is to wring any hard commitments from government to build new runways.
In particular, transport secretary Justine Greening is unconvinced the aviation industry has backed up its calls for extra capacity with sound, evidence-based research.
This will be reflected in the draft aviation policy. The consultation document will include a separate paper calling for evidence about whether the UK needs more airport capacity in the South East.
This will include consideration of a Thames Estuary Airport – however, in my view, an estuary airport very much remains an outside bet.
Despite the easing of planning restrictions, expected to be announced by communities secretary Eric Pickles on Tuesday, an estuary airport would take years to build. It would cost billions, generate nationwide opposition and almost certainly require the closure of Heathrow.
But a third runway at Heathrow is also unlikely. Heathrow may too big to fail but is also too controversial to expand.
It is significant that David Cameron, in his speech, singled out Gatwick which he said was growing as a business airport for London. The aviation industry would probably settle for one more runway in the South East – at Gatwick – but it is still one more runway than the coalition promised just two years ago.
The renewed emphasis on runways is of course just part of the emphasis on new infrastructure which is emerging from the government. The prime minister, in his speech, said the government would examine ways the private sector could get involved in road building.
There are infomed rumours Boris Johnson might look to increase road capacity at junctions across London if he wins in May, and plans are on track for the high-speed rail link to Birmingham. The new projects will be facilitated by a more relaxed planning system.
Over the last 20 years plans to build new roads and airports have generated massive protests from Twyford Down in the early 1990s to the Heathrow third runway in the last decade. If the government does opt for new roads and new runways it could spark off another round of nationwide protests.