1 November 2022, London Marriott Hotel County Hall
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
12 December 2022, etc.venues Monument, London
Since the Conservative election pledge to build no more runways in the south east, the coalition government has yet to come up with an alternative. This delay is now damaging Britain, says Stanley Slaughter.
Around about now all those concerned about Britain’s economy, Britain’s capacity to trade, its standing as an international hub for business and its ability to run reasonably well organised airports in London and the south-east should be chewing over the ideas and thoughts in the government’s paper on the future of UK aviation.
Sadly they are not. This much awaited and urgently needed document has been postponed until sometime in the summer, which could be anything from June to September.
There can be no clearer evidence that this vague promise to publish “in the summer” that the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition has no plans to put forward. This is increasingly becoming both a scandal and a disgrace.
How much Prime Minister David Cameron regrets his foolish promise to scrap plans for a third runway at Heathrow and block new runways at Gatwick and Stansted, we are unlikely ever to know. But this cynical gesture, probably to woo green-inclined voters and probably because Labour (at that time) supported a third runway is now loudly backfiring on him.
The pressure for extra runway capacity in the south-east is becoming irresistible. This is not just the usual suspects like BA and BAA, but also major companies, business organisation - such as the GTMC - and chambers of trade.
What is worse for the government is that cracks are increasingly appearing in its stance. Last month in his budget speech, chancellor George Osborne (and one who is suspected of not actually agreeing with Cameron’s pledge) said: "This country must confront the lack of airport capacity in the south east of England – we cannot cut ourselves off from the fastest growing cities in the world."
This week, the not entirely impressive aviation minister Theresa Villiers actually acknowledged that “Heathrow is pretty much full and Gatwick is approaching capacity” although she denied this was blunting the country’s competitiveness.
Gareth Morgan, associate director with Cavendish Communications and Westminster lobbyist for the GTMC, told a press briefing last week that it was “pretty clear there are arguments going on behind the scenes between the Tories and the Lib Dems and also arguments within the Conservative Party. This was not happening two years ago. There has been a shift.”
It is perhaps more accurate to blame the delay in bringing out the discussion paper not on an apparent lack of urgency but almost certainly because a common line cannot be agreed on. And the nearer the date of publication looms, the more intense the arguments inevitably become.
Cameron still seems determined to stick by his "no third runway at Heathrow" pledge and, as chance would have it, his transport secretary Justine Greening, campaigned against this at the last general election. Many Labour and Tory MPs with constituencies along the Thames strongly oppose any expansion at Heathrow.
This leaves expansion at either or both of Gatwick and Stansted and perhaps even a brand new airport at either the Isle of Grain or “Boris Island” in the Thames estuary. Cameron in his reply to a recent question on Heathrow did not actually rule out expansion elsewhere in the south east. This may be a clue to his thinking – if that is the right word.
Both would take time - especially any new airport in the Thames - when the need for extra capacity rises by the month amid growing signs that the British economy is suffering.
UK travel management companies are regularly reporting that Britain is losing business to Europe. Travellers who once went through Heathrow are now asking for flights to Charles de Gaulle, Schiphol or Frankfurt for their onward long-haul flights, especially to the rapidly growing market of the Far East and Latin America.
If this is happening here, how many travellers from outside the UK are also avoiding British airports and plumping for ones on the continent for their long-haul flights?
While Heathrow can offer a good range of flights, its lack of capacity makes it difficult either to enlarge that choice or, perhaps more importantly for the business traveller, increase frequencies. Getting to these continental hubs may take more time but if they offer direct flights or a more suitable take-off time, they can be a much better choice.
This is a trend that is likely to continue. The GTMC is doing research on the subject and it's not likely to make comfortable reading for those concerned with Britain’s recovery when its findings come out later this year.
It is difficult to think just what this government can do which will not cause a split of some dimension. Although sympathy has to be limited for a politician in trouble - this is a problem the Conservatives have almost wholly brought on to themselves by a rash and cynical promise.
However in the interests of the national economy, it really needs to be solved quickly.