CHINA flagAlok Sharma is MP for Reading West and a Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party.

David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson have all made high profile trade visits to China in recent weeks.  It would be surprising if air connectivity between the UK and major Chinese cities was not discussed.  And the Chinese certainly know a thing or two about expanding air connectivity to help them and their businesses get ahead in the global race.

Between 2005 and 2010 there were 33 new civil airports constructed in China, taking the total number to 175.  It is estimated that by 2015 this number will rise to over 230 airports.  That’s an average of 11 new airports built every year.

In Britain by contrast, whilst there has been broad consensus for decades on the need to expand airport capacity in the South East, not a single full length runway has been delivered during that time.  A lack of hub capacity in particular, is costing the UK jobs and investment.

The country’s only hub airport, Heathrow, is operating at almost full capacity. Figures from the International Air Transport Association show that due to the lack of capacity at Heathrow, between 2005 and 2011 there was a 49% growth in the number of passengers flying from UK regional airports to transfer at overseas hubs such as Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle. That represents a loss of business and jobs to the UK.

One capacity expansion option, which has the support of the Commons Transport Select Committee, is building a third runway at Heathrow.  The Centre for Policy Studies has gone one step further with an innovative proposal to configure Heathrow as a four runway airport, with no requirement for public funding.

A potential expansion of Heathrow certainly has the support of British and international businesses based in the Thames Valley, including those in my constituency.  Heathrow expansion is one of the options outlined in the Airports Commission’s  interim report.  However, what those businesses would not want to see is any final recommendation which ultimately leads to the closure of Heathrow.  That would be seriously bad news for business and bad news for jobs.

The Thames Valley is ranked in the top ten regions in Europe for GDP per capita and has the European headquarters of eleven of the top thirty global brands.   Surveys suggest that a big majority of businesses located in the Thames Valley cite Heathrow as one of the key factors for their location.

A recently commissioned report by the Thames Valley Berkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, and neighbouring LEPs in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Surrey and West London Business group, has concluded that the western wedge area around Heathrow generates 1 in every 10 pounds of UK economic output.  And aviation and related activity at Heathrow supports around 120,000 jobs and contributes £6.2 billion to the economy.

If a new hub airport was built to the east of London the expectation is that Heathrow would ultimately close.  That would lead to the loss of over 100,000 jobs directly dependant on activity at the airport and put at risk a further 170,000 jobs within the western wedge area.  There is no doubt that the closure, or even a severe downgrading, of Heathrow would have a huge negative economic impact in a region which is the economic powerhouse of the UK.

Any final decision on the location of a hub airport will be dependant on an assessment of cost, environmental impact and deliverability.

Whilst expansion at Heathrow is not everyone’s preferred option it does have advantages over rival proposals.  It is already an established global hub airport and is located on seven out of the top ten business routes in the world.  It enjoys excellent road network links and is set to benefit from public transport infrastructure investment including Crossrail, the Piccadilly Line upgrade and Western Rail Access.  And it would cost significantly less to expand Heathrow than to build a completely new hub airport.

Of course the question of expanding hub airport capacity is a difficult one.  But once the Airports Commission makes its final recommendations what we need is for politicians to act on those recommendations.  To duck the question of airport expansion for another electoral cycle will do a huge disservice to Britain’s hopes of succeeding in the global race.