Britain’s international connectivity has long played an important role in facilitating trade with the rest of the globe and in attracting new business. By value, 40 per cent of our exports go by air; and we trade up to 20 times more with those countries where we have a direct air link.
For more than three centuries, and up until very recently, we played host to the world’s busiest port or airport. Yet this is now part of our history: earlier this year, Dubai International overtook Heathrow to become the world’s busiest international airport.
Despite our past success the fact is, here in the UK, we face an increasingly big problem with our airport infrastructure. Heathrow, our only international hub airport, has already been full for a decade; Gatwick, our second busiest, is now full at peak times and will be completely full by 2020. All of London’s airports are forecast to be full by 2030, if not before.
So how did the situation get this bad? The truth is we haven’t built a new full-length runway in London and the South East since 1945. Successive generations of politicians and governments of all parties have deferred a decision on airport expansion for around 70 years.
As a result, our European rivals are now racing ahead. Paris for example already has 50 per cent more flights to China, a key growth economy. This is hardly surprising when you consider that Charles De Gaulle airport has four runways: Heathrow only has two, and Gatwick just one.
And it’s not just France that has acompetitive edge over us. Frankfurt also has four runways, whilst Amsterdam Schiphol has six. Our competitors got on and upgraded their airport infrastructure years ago. Whilst looking further to the future, by 2036, the world’s major cities plan to have built over 50 new runways globally. Here we currently have no plans.
This is why in 2012, two years after it cancelled the third runway at Heathrow, the Government decided the best way to address the issue was to establish the Airports Commission, and appointed the economist Sir Howard Davies to lead its work. The idea was that the government would call on an independent panel of experts to make recommendations based on a robust evidence-base and rigorous process, in an effort to break decades of political deadlock.
After nearly three years of extensive debate and consultation, in the coming weeks the Commission will make its final recommendation on whether the green light should be given for an expanded Gatwick or Heathrow.
Even before it makes its final recommendation, the Airports Commission has concluded that Heathrow expansion could deliver up to £214bn in economic benefit, and Gatwick expansion up to £127bn. So the economic prize on offer is not insignificant, particularly for a country whose trade gap recently reached a four-year high.
Given the major boost it would give the UK’s economy, the increasing urgency of the situation and the sheer amount of time the Commission has already spent examining the issue, you would have thought that the decision to build a new runway would now be the number one infrastructure priority for the new government. Yet there have been recent media reports that airport expansion could face further dither and delay: the government says it may not give its formal response to the Airports Commission’s final recommendations until the end of the year, or possibly early next. From a business point of view this is unacceptable – a decision should have been taken years ago. It’s time for the political procrastination to stop and for the UK’s political leaders to take bold and swift action to address the problem.
Now more than ever, once the Airports Commission does publish its Final Report, we need a decision that is wholly based on the long-term national interest, not short-term political considerations. After all this time debating the issue, the time has surely come for the government to just get on with it.
Gavin Hayes is director of Let Britain Fly, the pro-airport expansion campaign initiated by London First.