Labour and Lib Dems could benefit from Boris’s airports fetish

John Stewart, chair of AirportWatch, writes about the potential electoral consequences of Boris Johnson's lust for more airports and runways in the South East.

John Stewart is the chair of AirportWatch

Even Boris has now rejected an Estuary Airport. Speaking to international investors in Davos today he said expansion at Stansted would be “the easiest” way to create a four-runway airport.

The London Mayor’s remarks come the day after the a major report from Oxera, commissioned by the transport select committee, concluded an offshore airport could require a subsidy of as much as £30 billion. [See: “Would a new hub airport be commercially viable?” (pdf)]

The report also estimated that the £70 billion project would be, at best, “risky” for private investors.

Although Oxera stress an estuary airport might eventually bring wider economic benefits to the UK, the fact it would require billions in public subsidy and still be a risky investment for private investors almost certain means it is dead in the water.

However, Boris’s new favourite, three new runways at Stansted, is not without its problems.

It would be cheaper and simpler to build than an estuary airport but any new airport of that size it likely to face not just considerable local opposition but blow a hole in the government’s climate change targets.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government’s official advisers, has argued the number of flights could increase by around 55% and still enable the aviation industry to meet the government target of reducing its emissions to their 2005 levels by 2050. In bald terms, that could allow three more runways.

However, it needs to be heavily caveated. It does not take account of the type of aircraft using the runways.

Long-haul flights clearly produce more emissions than short-haul. Three more runways used for a Heathrow-type proportion of long haul flights – which is what is envisaged at Stansted – would send emissions way past government targets. By contrast, one runway used largely for short haul flights would probably not.

Christine Lagarde, the boss of the International Monetary Fund, told the same Davos gathering at which Boris spoke:

“Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.”

I suspect Boris’s high-profile flirtation with one airport after another is not helping the Conservative cause. It is making them look tentative and uncertain. It’s Labour which could benefit from the mayor’s love-affairs.

The politically astute Maria Eagle has cleverly positioned the party as firmly opposed to Heathrow expansion and to an Estuary Airport: a stance which could win it marginal seats in both West London and North Kent.

A number Conservative MPs, acutely aware of the danger, are pressing the prime minister to bring forward the final report of the Davies Commission, which has been charged with looking at future airport capacity, to before the next general election.

As things stand, Labour (and the Liberal Democrats) will go into the next election firmly opposed to the two schemes that matter electorally – a third runway at Heathrow and an estuary airport – while the Conservatives are forced to wait for the results of the Davies Commission, all the while listening to Boris extolling the virtues of airport expansion on a scale that is simply unsustainable.

See also:

Budget 2012: Will the coalition u-turn on its ‘no new runways’ pledge?March 21st, 2012

Even if people prefer a 3rd runway to Boris Island, doesn’t mean they like eitherFebruary 9th, 2012

Cameron: I’m backing Boris (Island)January 18th, 2012

Coalition aviation policy is still green… for nowMarch 29th, 2011

Boris’s airport arguments don’t stand up to scrutinyMarch 18th, 2011

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