Davies Airport Commission – Limping towards inevitability

At last, following three more years of politically induced delays and damage to the long term economy, the five man independent team under Sir Howard Davies charged to consider how the UK can maintain its long term status as a premier international aviation HUB will put forward a formal set of interim proposals on Tuesday that will re-open and no doubt widen the debate on airport expansion.

Having ducked the political issue of airport expansion for so long I would not expect that on reading the interim Davies report conclusions that Prime Minister, David Cameron will stray far from his 2010 election commitment that no new Heathrow runway will be authorized in the present government term. But there can be no denial that with the debate now re-opened, and that when the final Davies Report emerges in 2015 after the next General Election, that the decision must also be that nothing should be allowed to get in the way of stopping much needed UK airport expansion.

Davies is expected to launch a series of options that are most likely to be based on further development of Heathrow and Gatwick as opposed to recommending that a new airport be built. The Interim report is expected to present a handful of narrowed down choice options that I expect will be based on a choice between expanding Heathrow through the addition of one runway, expanding Heathrow through the building of two additional runways or expansion of both Heathrow and Gatwick with each having one additional new runway built. If correct there would, as I suggest above, appear to be no room for the much higher risk option of building a completely new airport in the Thames Estuary as favoured by London Mayor, Boris Johnson.

Whilst I have been less than convinced by the idea of building a new airport in the middle of the Thames Estuary, preferring to support the combined Heathrow/Gatwick option, I am concerned that without backing from the Mayor of London for Heathrow expansion moving the situation further on in the shorter term will remain very difficult. To have the elected Mayor against expansion of the main airport in London is not a situation that is politically desirable. The thought that Mayor Johnson will still have one more year left in office within the present term when the final Davies report is issued in 2015 could yet cause a major political complication to the vexing subject of Heathrow airport expansion.

While we can have no idea yet over Mayor Johnson’s longer term plans it seems to me that, assuming that expanding Heathrow and Gatwick remain the preferred option in the final report, those against such a recommendation will continue to have support from the Tory Mayor and thus plenty of ammunition to delay implementation. Politically the thought that two large upstanding Tories, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, could well be at loggerheads on the issue of Heathrow expansion fills me with foreboding!

There are of course rarely votes to be had in airport development in constituencies likely to be affected except by those who work in the airport environment and live nearby. Whilst the Labour Government had at least tried to expand Heathrow it was quick to realise that the political ramifications of expanding Heathrow were too dangerous to go on. It is a great shame that unlike our international competitors we have a habit in Britain of putting what may be in the national interest behind what may be best for ourselves.

David Cameron will I am sure eventually change his mind over Heathrow expansion but I doubt, even with the glaringly obvious staring him in the face, that for the best of political reasoning he will make the u-turn this side of the next General Election. Thus I am left to conclude that despite interim proposals from the Davies Airport Commission on Tuesday, other than perhaps widening the overall debate and increasing the noise Britain will, after tomorrow, be any further forward along the road to expanding airport capacity than it is today. The UK economy will be the worse for that.

As to Howard Davies who is a well known individual and one who appears to have had rather a lot of jobs I hope that whatever his report concludes it will be given the credibility it deserves. I observe that Davies has over the past twenty years enjoyed a career as Controller of the Audit Commission, Director General of the CBI, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, the first executive Chairman of the now disgraced Financial Services Authority and most recently, as Director of the London School of Economics & Political Sciences of which he departed in 2011. Being an economist as well is helpful although to the best of my knowledge Davies has no aviation related experience at all other than having to use airports like the rest of us. But given his ‘broad’ experience and the fact that he is an economist is in this case helpful and I suspect that we can expect a credible interim review statement and one that has been conducted though correct due process.

Airport location, new terminals, additional runways, aircraft noise and environmental issues are these days charged with political emotion and can as we see in the current example bring members of a same political party into head-on conflict. I believe that the majority of Westminster parliamentarians do recognise that expansion of UK airport capacity is desirable, necessary and now very urgent.

What they can’t agree is whether further expansion of Heathrow is practical, desirable or politically acceptable. In a world of so-called austerity and unlike potentially large investment requirements such as HS2 affordability should not be a crucial issue in deciding airport expansion as it will be the private sector that absorbed most of the risk. Indeed, even if the Davies Review was to have decided to back the Thames Estuary Boris Airport plan one might be able to presuppose that funding this would be led by the private sector with potential investment coming predominantly from large sovereign wealth funds and foreign states.

Whatever the interim Davies Commission report concludes will be seen as a wrong path by some and the right one by others. We do have to get this one right as whatever is decided and eventually implemented will impact on the economy and wellbeing of the nation for the next fifty to one hundred years. To achieve what is needed requires real leadership from Government. Improving UK airport infrastructure and capacity to ensure that we are able to retain our position as a lead international transit hub is crucial to how the economy develops from here. The real truth is that Britain cannot afford to wait that much longer to get aviation policy right. The future is already here for some and with Asia growing so fast the potential of the UK losing out is staring us in the face. The bottom line is the need to invest now or watch over our increasing inability to compete – along with a slow decline of the British economy.

I suspect that publication of the interim Davies Commission report has been timed to occur in the week before Christmas for good reason. In theory choosing this time to announce what may be a controversial set of options to choose from allows for an unofficial cooling off period that should last about fourteen days.

For those of us that understand the necessity and urgency of investing in UK airport and runway infrastructure in terms of this being an economic necessity in our view we are left with no choice but to battle on pushing the message that if Britain fails to act on the critically important issue of airport expansion we will no longer remain an important player in an industry that we are a very important player.

Does that matter? Yes it does not least because as other sections of Government work hard to encourage and attract international investment to Britain the most important requirements that potential investors look are policies with regard to investment relief, taxation and transport. Of these having an efficient, well-invested air transport infrastructure and a forward thinking aviation policy in regard to expanding airport capacity to meet growing demand are hugely important.

That Heathrow is all but blocked in capacity terms is about the only issue that all parties agree on. That Heathrow should continue with its aim of maintaining world class standard as one of the most significant transit airport locations in the world is argued by some but to my mind if we were to take our eye off the ball on this we would very soon regret it in terms of jobs.

I have, as I said before, nothing particularly against the notion of building a new airport in the Thames Estuary – the so called Boris Airport option as an additional airport development but I do not believe that it should be thought of as a Heathrow replacement. Closing Heathrow ten years or so from now following all the investment that has been put in and potentially throwing 70,000 people out of work is a nonsense suggestion.

As an extra airport it could have merit though and funded by the private sector as London City airports was so successfully thirty years ago a new airport in the Thames estuary could relieve the need to expand Stansted. But the reality is that building an airport in the middle of the Thames Estuary as the main airport serving the capital and with all the train, road and tunnel infrastructure, housing and other requirements needed to serve it is hardly a sensible option. Heathrow and Gatwick need additional runways and they need them now. And for the record, of the three options that the Davies Commission will likely put forward tomorrow investing in both Heathrow and Gatwick would be my personal option of choice.

I regret by the way that at the CBI Conference last month Boris Johnson mocked the brilliant work done by aircraft and aero engine manufacturers such as Boeing, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and GE by attempting to kid a serious and intelligent audience that there was no difference between the noise that modern fourth generation aircraft currently on offer make for the many second and third generation aircraft that are still flying to our airports today. Modern aircraft are at least 40% less noisy than their predecessor aircraft and they are considerably more fuel efficient per passenger too. The same is true on aircraft emissions and I would point out here that while official UK government statistics [Department of Transport – UK Aviation Forecasts] show that while transport as a whole accounts for 27% of UK greenhouse gas emissions the aviation sector is responsible for between one to two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The report also concluded that domestic aviation in 2020 accounted for just 0.3% of UK greenhouse gas emissions.

For those of us that have watched various Conservative and Labour governments kick the airport infrastructure ‘can’ further and further down the road for the best part of forty years the hope might have been that the interim Davies Report revelations might provide a sense of relief. Sadly they won’t do that – in fact they may well deepen the squabble. We have been down this road before and some of us remember the notional idea of building an airport at Maplin Sands (Foulness) on the north side of the Thames which was at first accepted by government and then dumped in favor of doing nothing because of political objections. That was forty years ago. Howard Davies will be able to claim that he has provided a new basis of choice for formal debate but as the final report conclusions are still eighteen months away I fear that the process of ongoing debate, planning, objections, parliamentary process, appeals, potential judicial reviews and so on will ensure that process of adapting to change and upgrading UK airport capacity will take at least another ten years.

Blame this on politics and fear if you will – I am hardly going to object. Recall too that it was Benjamin Disraeli who said that politics “is nothing but contemptible”. I suspect that few in this day and age would disagree. Ambrose Bierce, an American journalist who died just short of one hundred years ago, went one stage further saying “politics was a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles” which in his eyes was “the conduct of public affairs for private advantage”. Maybe but the way I see the present stance – particularly of certain Coalition Government members who are intent to push the airport capacity ‘can’ into at least 2015 – is more befitting of how the late French President, Charles de Gaulle described politics; “in order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant”

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785


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