Kwasi Kwarteng is the Member of Parliament for Spelthorne.
“When the facts change, I change my mind… what do you do Sir?” said John Maynard Keynes to criticism that he had changed his mind on monetary policy during the Great Depression. The circumstances of 2012 are clearly very different from those in the middle of the last Parliament, when we had experienced 15 years of continuous growth.
Our current economic situation, with all its difficulties, has made aviation policy a central topic of discussion. The growth of emerging markets, coupled with the relative economic stagnation of Europe, has focused minds on the need for Britain to develop business relations with the wider world. You don’t need the logic of a Jesuit to appreciate that aviation is important to fostering links with those emerging economies outside Europe.
Evidence suggests that London is already falling behind other European cities. Paris and Frankfurt enjoy a thousand more annual flights to the largest cities in China than Heathrow. It has also been shown that businesses trade 20 times as much with emerging markets than enjoy a direct daily flight than with those for which there is no such contact. It is predicted that demand is set to double over the next 20 years, while our main airports are already 95% to 99% full. These facts are quite well established, and lead to further questions. Most people are agreed that some expansion in aviation capacity will probably take place. The debate now centres on where this expansion should take place, and over what time frame.
We have had a suggestion, most vividly expressed by the Mayor of London and now apparently backed by David Cameron, that we should create a new airport on an island in the Estuary. The so-called “Boris Island” looks like a long term solution. Our economy simply cannot afford to wait the 20 to 30 years that it would take to build “Boris Island”. So what is the short to medium term solution to this problem? In a new paper released today by the Free Enterprise Group, I argue that expanding current airports is the only viable option in the short to medium term. Airport operators should be allowed to build at least one more runway by 2020 at Gatwick, Stansted, or even Heathrow.
Of course, nobody likes the disturbance of more flights near their home. We should reform planning law so that airport operators can freely and fully negotiate compensation with affected local residents. Rather than have Government try to plan the course of the industry, we should let the market system work. This may mean that some locations such as West London ultimately prove commercially unviable. It may also mean that developments could occur in places which we have perhaps overlooked. The point is that the industry should have more of a say as to where best to accommodate rising demand. It is not clear that the man in Whitehall knows best on matters of this kind.
Then again, there are some who say that Britain does not need any more airports, and that we should somehow off load our aviation needs to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, or Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. They would be happy to see aviation as yet another industry in which we were once leaders fall behind. Everyone knows that the south-east is always a difficult proposition for extensive new building projects. Yet given the economic situation we are in, we do need a plan for growth, and whether we like it or not economic growth is likely to lead to more demand for aviation, rather than less.