I wrote on Friday about Britain’s long-standing problems with delivering infrastructure projects. If anything, the airport situation is even worse than that of rail – at least rail projects tend to begin before they get into trouble, whereas governments of all stripes have dithered over airport expansion for decades. The current state of affairs goes as follows:
- Labour, under Blair and Brown, artfully avoided making a decision for 13 years, continuing the non-policy of the Thatcher and Major years. The Coalition, unable to agree either, then passed the buck to an airports commission, which would conveniently report after the election.
- When that commission was planned, it seems no-one had banked on the next government being reliant on a wafer-thin majority – a majority small enough to be undercut by the opposition of, say, a few West London MPs if they felt the wrong plan had been adopted. The swathe of Tory gains from the Lib Dems in South West London brings with it a new tranche of MPs who will oppose expansion at Heathrow. At the same time, there are now a group of anti-Gatwick MPs who are reportedly lobbying to have Justine Greening among others removed from Cabinet discussions on the topic.
- The commission itself will report on Wednesday. Current speculation is that it will a) recommend a new runway at Heathrow but b) leave the door open to one at Gatwick instead. Effectively, Sir Howard Davies will be chucking the grenade back to the ministers who handed it to him in the first place, leaving us back where we started.
- Meanwhile, the complexity of the issue around the London mayoralty has also intensified. Boris Johnson is still opposed to Heathrow expansion, though as he’s now the outgoing Mayor of London his position is perhaps a little less powerful than before. Zac Goldsmith has long threatened a by-election if Heathrow goes ahead, though it isn’t clear how that would fit in with his tilt at the role of London Mayoral candidate – his feelings on the issue are so strong that he might decided he has to fight a by-election while standing to be the Tory choice for Mayor. Syed Kamall, his main competitor, has also opposed Heathrow expansion in the past. Labour’s would-be mayoral candidates are currently fighting bitterly about the issue, too.
- All of which raises the peculiar prospect of a no-score draw. The Government don’t seem to want to address the issue, still. The leading lights of London politics keep saying no to Heathrow. MPs whose seats neighbour Heathrow have enough votes to stop expansion – but so do the MPs whose seats neighbour Gatwick.
- While all of this goes on, we continue to fall behind our international competitors. The South East’s airport capacity is almost full, and hub capacity is entirely full. Carriers are looking to France and Germany when establishing new routes, many of which connect to locations in the BRIC countries whose growth will prove crucial in the coming decades. Business groups are united in wanting action as soon as possible to get Britain back in the game, but Westminster seems unwilling to decide. It’s not a pretty picture.