I can’t say that I am really surprised by the government decision to boot the ball down the field on the airport expansion decision – it was always going to be a tough one with the prospective mayoral candidates dead set against it and the obvious political fallout from making a commitment. The process of getting the independent Davies Commission to study the subject thoroughly gave rise to a clear recommendation – that together with the firm promise by the PM of a definite decision by the end of the year had tempted me to think we have a team in government that won’t shy away from the decisions needed to support long term economic growth in the country.
Alas I was wrong! We now know that the decision is to defer a decision – in favour of being able to study environmental impacts more thoroughly. Call me a cynic, but one imagines that given current knowledge of geography, current air quality, flight paths,road traffic, aircraft types etc, together with having already had many years to study the subject, they must already be pretty close to understanding the environmental impacts which an expansion would have by now.
It is not like Davies ignored the environmental side – it is very thoroughly covered and includes requirements to:
- Ban scheduled night flights- 11.30pm to 6am
- Develop legally binding noise contours which operations will have to work within
- Only release capacity when it can be demonstrated that it can be operated within EU air quality boundaries – (and one assumes this will be done properly – not in a Volkswagen sort of way!)
Of course major decisions like this cannot be expected to be easy. Balancing the interests of the economy and the local community together with the long term health of the planet is clearly difficult. But ducking them or finding eternal ways to defer them cannot be the right way to proceed.
It is clearly a matter of political judgement as to how environmental concerns are balanced with a ‘Britain is open for business’ stance. If our concerns are great enough as to wish to reduce growth prospects by limiting air transport then our politicians need to come out and say that – so that people can make that choice in the ballot box if they agree that this is a sacrifice worth making.
The other side of this debate is of course cost. When Terminal 5 was built, the new facilities were erected on a previous sludge works. The cost of providing alternative facilities and acquiring the land was relatively small compared with the schemes now under consideration. The lack of long term planning now means that the cost of securing the land required is phenomenally high – so high that it dwarfs the actual cost of erecting the new facilities and making them operational. Ultimately the cost of this will have to fall somewhere – either on the public purse, as a subsidy, or else in private hands which effectively means that the consumer will pay. Whilst this may seem fair enough, the hub principle on which major airports work, is subject to foreign competition. There is a clear risk that expensive air travel may reduce viability and make the UK a relatively expensive place to operate through.
Air transport has been one of the great success stories over the period since privatisation – now nearly 30 years. It has contributed hugely to the economy and operated without subsidy from the public purse. In fact, through Air Passenger Duty it has been a significant direct contributor. A choking of supply over the coming years could well damage this contribution in a way that most people would not want.
About time then that, having set up a process to examine the facts and balance the interests, the government backed the outcomes of the process in the long term interests of us all.