By Matthew Barrett
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A story in the Financial Times (£) this morning contains the news that the Conservative leadership will, at the next election, give themselves the ability to support a third runway at Heathrow, after several years of opposition to such an increase in airport capacity. The FT reports:

"The Conservative leadership has decided to make a decisive switch away from the party’s outright hostility to a third runway at the west London airport by making no mention of Heathrow in its general election manifesto, according to senior party sources. That would clear the path for a majority Tory government to proceed with the project after 2015."

At present, the Coalition is delaying decisions on new capacity in the south east, due to serious divisions between the Coalition parties over the expansion of Heathrow. The Department for Transport will be recommending the Heathrow route as one option in its upcoming paper on aviation, but only as one of a range of choices which will include the expansion of Stansted or Gatwick, a new Thames estuary airport, or linking Heathrow and Gatwick with a high speed rail connection.

This future paper has already been delayed by three months. Ostensibly this is to allow aviation companies to produce long responses to the plans, but in actual fact, delaying the publication of any recommendation to expand Heathrow allows the Coalition to escape an unnecessary row. That row may not be entirely avoidable, however: the Treasury is keen on, to coin a phrase, maxing out Heathrow. Their suggestions include allowing more night flights, and allowing runways to be used for landings and take-offs simultaneously. The Lib Dems do not agree with either of these measures. The FT also reports that Coalition interest in a Thames estuary option is waning, due to its £50bn cost.

The Government clearly faces a dilemma: expansions at Gatwick or Stansted would perhaps be too little to make a real difference to the south east's airport capacity; the Lib Dems won't have a third Heathrow runway; and the estuary option is costly. Keeping schtum is perhaps the best option – for now. However, whilst the present Coalition may not be able to make any progress on the capacity front, many business leaders in the south east are likely to welcome a move towards a third runway in the next Conservative manifesto. Whether a third Heathrow option is the right one or not (I personally think it would be insufficient, and so the estuary option should be explored more thoroughly) – we are missing out on £billions in trade with the emerging markets, and should be glad the blue half of the Government is looking for ways to remedy this. 

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