Toby Elliott is Cabinet Member for Strategic Planning at Swindon Council and Chief of Staff to a Conservative MP.
The Davies Commission on airport capacity reports tomorrow, and those seeking an end to the Heathrow-Gatwick debate will likely be disappointed.
Indeed, the most defining feature of this Commission is unlikely to be its recommendations (‘Heathrow… or maybe Gatwick’). Rather, its defining feature will have been proved, as the industry has long known, to be its utter futility.
Despite the best efforts of businesses and groups such as Let Britain Fly, tomorrow will most likely be the passing of the buck back to Ministers.
As Mark Wallace highlighted yesterday, the political nature of the situation is fraught, meaning that a firm decision from the Secretary of State is probably at least six months away. That is before we start on the inevitable legal challenges from the losing bidders.
The phrase ‘only in Britain’ particularly applies to what has actually been decades of procrastination. This is the fifth report into airport capacity to be commissioned since the 1950s, and the common denominator in the last sixty years is inaction.
The last Labour Government came dangerously close to agreeing a third runway at Heathrow in a 2003 White Paper. Alas seven years later, with no concrete progress on the idea, the Coalition Government shelved the idea in 2010.
Such paralysis comes at a very real cost. This is an industry which contributes £52 billion to UK GDP and directly employs nearly a million people. Yet carriers are already looking elsewhere. Heathrow faces tough competition from European hub airports such as Paris Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt Main, and Amsterdam Schiphol.
With Heathrow at capacity, these airports are already taking British business and passengers. Britain cannot compete with her hands tied behind her back.
The problem isn’t, as many suggest, the complexity of the situation. The Thames Estuary option was never a real runner, being too ambitious, too contentious, and too costly in austere times. As the industry has long known, it is a Heathrow vs Gatwick game.
But here too, the arguments have been deeply misleading. Treating it as an ‘either or’, as direct competitors, is like comparing apples and pears.
Heathrow has built its success on being the UK’s hub airport, catering to a mainly business market which fuels our economy. It is the UK economy’s gateway to globalisation, with airlines across the world coming to Heathrow to deposit passengers as well as transiting them on elsewhere. Our continued economic growth relies on a successful hub airport.
Gatwick, however, is a point-to-point airport, which is really starting to come into its own. It caters for more leisure passengers, as well as the ever growing low cost market and niche destinations. Thanks to advances in technology, airlines such as Norwegian Air Shuttle are able to use the fuel efficient Boeing 787 to fly people across the Atlantic at low prices and operate at a profit.
This is a totally different offering to Heathrow. It is no less important for Britain, we need a successful Gatwick too. After all, if Norwegian can take Brits across the Atlantic at a bargain price, so too can they bring a new market of leisure tourism back across to the UK.
These two airports serve very different markets. They are not direct competitors and therefore their future cannot be treated as a ‘one or the other’.
Even if additional capacity at both did enable them to compete with one another on certain routes, why is that a bad thing? Competition is something, as a Government, the Conservatives should be looking for.
One of the best decisions in recent years was to break up the old monopoly of BAA plc – with Gatwick, Stansted and Edinburgh airports going to new owners.
Since Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) purchased Gatwick in 2009 they have spent more than £1 billion in upgrading the airport. Recent visitors will have noticed the marked changes to what is a very old set of buildings – security rarely takes any time at all and there is a much higher specification for both retail outlets and lounges.
This work has partly forced Heathrow to up their game; and last year’s opening of Terminal 2 – The Queen’s Terminal showed how far the sector has advanced in just a few years.
Passengers will no longer just put up with terrible customer service, drab interiors, delays to both their flights and their bags or anything else; they will simply just take their money elsewhere.
So why is the UK so afraid of competition when it comes to airports? The answer in 2015 is the same as what it should have been in 2010: let both Heathrow and Gatwick expand without public subsidy. Let the two airports compete for business and everyone will prosper.
The arguments levied by the green lobby, and politicians who do not see beyond the size of their majorities regarding noise pollution and environmental factors can, and will, be mitigated by new technology – just compare a Boeing 747 to a Boeing 787 in both regards and you will see how far we have come in 20 years.
The threats of Paris Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt Main and Amsterdam Schiphol taking business and passengers from London is a real one, and is already happening. Now is the time to break the legacy of inaction.
There are no guarantees that London will remain one of the world’s leading financial hubs, nor that the UK will remain one of biggest economies. Let the legacy of this Commission be moment that government stepped back and allowed free market competition to take hold and help Britain flourish.