Adrian Pepper is Managing Director of Pepper Media. He is a former Special Adviser and Parliamentary Candidate. He stood for the Conservatives in the South East Region in last year’s European elections.
The Airports Commission led by Sir Howard Davies will shortly recommend which of two London airports – Gatwick or Heathrow – should be given the right to build a new runway. The vacuum left by his impressively leak-free Commission has been filled by media speculation as to whether the politicians will act on his recommendations.
In one journal, we may read that David Cameron is said to be warming to Gatwick; in another, George Osborne is reported to favour backing business’ preferred option of Heathrow. Zac Goldsmith’s threat to resign from Parliament if the latter gets the nod has conveniently coincided with his preferred decision to run for Mayor of London, which might end up with him leaving the Commons anyway. And, as for Boris, his freedom to fulfil his pledge to lie in front of the steamrollers building Heathrow’s third runway will be circumscribed by the doctrine of collective Ministerial responsibility, assuming he takes a job in Cameron’s Government in a year’s time.
Over the past two years, I have had the chance to canvass residents’ opinions in numerous constituencies near both Heathrow and Gatwick airports. When you talk to people about local issues, it is remarkable how few people spontaneously mention aviation expansion even as an issue of concern to them. It does not register on a scale of their political priorities (which is topped by the economy, immigration and the NHS.)
If you raise the issue with residents, you discover that the vast majority of people support aviation expansion in principle – a view that, since the establishment of the Airports Commission, has also been shared by the Conservative Party.
In some West London constituencies, you discover that there are at least as many residents who quietly support the expansion of Heathrow as residents who loudly oppose it. You might not believe this by listening to their elected representatives, but many of them have succumbed to sustained pressure from a well-organised protest movement against Heathrow which has had years to establish itself. There is no grassroots movement in favour of expansion – just a silent majority who recognise that a big global city like London needs a big hub airport to serve its needs.
In some constituencies near Heathrow, such as Spelthorne, the jobs argument outweighs any concerns about noise or air quality. There are more votes in defending the jobs of constituents who work in aviation and related industries than in letting them move elsewhere. If Gatwick were expanded, many jobs would move there. Yet the area around Gatwick is one where there is already low unemployment – so the change would mean inward migration and the building of 40,000 new homes in the Surrey and Sussex countryside.
That explains in part why, around Gatwick, opposition to expansion of the local airport among voters is significantly more widespread, and the conviction runs much deeper among local residents. They fear that an expanded Gatwick would require a massive investment in new road and rail infrastructure. The airport is served by just one motorway, the M23 (accessed via the M25), and one train line (to Brighton); whereas people get to and from Heathrow via the M40, M4, M25 and M3 as well as by tube, rail, Crossrail and, in due course, HS2.
Right now, the Gatwick opposition campaign – like the residents themselves – is much more understated than Heathrow’s. But it should not be underestimated. We have already seen a group of backbench Conservative MPs led Crispin Blunt, a former Minister, demand of the Chief Whip that Ministers local to both airports should recuse themselves from involvement in the Government’s final decision.
If Gatwick is recommended by Davies, we will also be hearing a lot more in the months to come from the area’s local Conservative councils, conservation area preservation groups and the little platoons that have been spontaneously springing up : Communities Against Gatwick Noise and Emissions, the High Weald Parishes Aviation Action Group, the East Sussex Campaign against Noise, and Gatwick Obviously Not – to name but a few.
A Reuters report recently quoted a claim that if Davies opts for Gatwick, the Conservatives will pop the champagne corks and come out and announce that Gatwick will expand tomorrow. But if Ministers think that opting for Gatwick is going to be politically any more palatable than Heathrow, they underestimate the scale of nationwide opposition that they will encounter.
Opposition to Gatwick expansion does not stop in the rural southern Home Counties. Big business wants a hub at Heathrow. Regional businesses and tourism in the regions rely on frequent access to a hub airport too – and that can only mean expanding Heathrow. If the Government chooses Gatwick, we should expect to see protests from MPs representing Northern Ireland, Wales, the Midlands and the North of England as well as Scotland. They will castigate David Cameron and his Government for pandering to middle class metropolitan sensibilities, rather than listening to the nation at large.
The point of asking independent experts on the Airports Commission to reach a verdict was to take politics out of this issue. Yet now the Government is offering a further six months of consultation after the Commission has reported. We are about to witness a fractious political tussle, which will overshadow the calm and thorough process of deliberation that Sir Howard Davies has been leading. Even after the Davies report has been issued, we are going to be none the wiser as to where the new runway will be built.