Gale`s View – 25th January 2012
Since the application of the jet engine for civilian aircraft use London`s Heathrow airport has been the dominant inter-lining facility within Europe and has been used by passengers changing planes to fly to just about every country in the world. That international standing has been worth, over more than half a century, hundreds of millions of pounds and tens of thousands of jobs to the United Kingdom.
That World Class position is, though, now under threat. Heathrow Airport is bursting at the seams and the construction of Terminals Four and Five and the refurbishment of the older Terminals One, Two and Three cannot disguise the fact that LHR only has two runways and that, therefore, the capacity for aircraft movements is very strictly limited. Other European airports – Paris Charles de Gaulle, for example, and Frankfurt – have four runways and Schiphol is snapping at London`s heels and eager to steal the business. If we are to retain our national position as a premier player in global aviation then, as I said in a View” back in February 2009, to do nothing is not an option.
It is not so very long ago that I presided over a Commons debate during which the Aviation Minister ruled out a new London airport in the Thames Estuary or in Kent. Now, with government having eliminated the possibility of a third runway at Heathrow from the equation, Boris Island” or, more probably a Grain Island Airport” is back on the agenda and will go out to public consultation.
There are, of course, those who would like to see the skies clear of all aeroplanes . For those people the answer is simple; never mind the cost to the economy, never mind the loss of employment, no more airports and no more runways. Let others launder the dirty linen of global travel.
For the rest of us there is a harsh reality to be faced. If not Heathrow, then where?
Whether we like it or not international travellers do not wish to find themselves relegated to some peripheral location. Heathrow has been successful in part because of its proximity to Central London and to the global Financial Services located there. In 2009 I wrote that I do not believe that `Boris Island` is either desirable or politically achievable” and, broadly, I hold to that view. The Mayor of London has said that sovereign funds”, by which he presumably means Middle and Far Eastern money, are available to provide the billions of pounds necessary in long-term investment to build a brand new London Airport. Provided that airlines could be persuaded or compelled to re-locate from Heathrow to `New London` rather than to mainland Europe then he may well be right.
Boris Johnson also says that given the political will” a new airport could be built not in decades but in short order. That, I personally doubt. Our planning and consultation and necessary legislative procedures all take time and even with the necessary political will I would doubt that a new airport and the supporting rail infrastructure, is likely to be up and running, if it is approved, inside twenty years. The need for additional airport capacity in the South East is, though, immediate.
I believe that the time has come for the new Secretary of State for Transport, Justine Greening, to take a long, hard, look at the available and under-used facilities that already exist. That must, of course, include Manston. I have said before and can only repeat that while I do not suggest that Manston offers either the space or the location to serve as another London Airport it could relatively easily, with enhanced rail transport links, prove to be a viable regional airport capable of taking passenger traffic from Gatwick. That, in turn, would release slots at Gatwick that could help to take some of the pressure off Heathrow. Manston, with its job-creating potential in an area that needs inward investment and employment, ought to be a more affordable and more immediately achievable contribution to the solution than the construction, at some time in the future, of a new facility in the Thames Estuary with a consequent transfer of work from the West of London to the East.