A decision at last? Davies Commission recommends Heathrow

On 1 July, the Airports Commission headed by Sir Howard Davies published its long-awaited report into the future direction for the expansion of London's airports. Simon Whalley, RAeS Head of Policy and Public Affairs, considers the implications of the report and what might happen next.#

There you have it.

After almost three years of exhaustive analysis and extensive public, industry and political consultation, Sir Howard Davies has published his final report to the Government on the location of additional runway capacity in the south east of England.

And the winner is …

And it was Heathrow that won his backing.

Speculation over the past few months had been rife and contradictory, seesawing in favour of the London airport and then back towards its West Sussex rival, all the time fuelled by vigorous campaigns by the three promoters.

By the end it felt like it could go either way with hearsay a plenty that the result would be a traditional British fudge, somehow advocating both.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t.

The Commission has delivered a ‘clear’ and ‘unanimous conclusion’ that the best option would be expansion at Heathrow, to the north west of the current site as proposed by Heathrow Airport Ltd, because of the ‘more substantial economic and strategic benefits than any other shortlisted options’.

The preferred option was never going to just be about economic benefit, and to enable Heathrow to grow the Commission has proposed a ‘comprehensive package of accompanying measures…to be taken forward, in parallel…to address its impacts on the local environment and communities’.

Third runway

If you thought it was now spades in the ground, you’d be mistaken. The Government is not bound by the conclusions of the final report, no matter how comprehensive and compelling they might be, and will now spend the summer poring over its contents before deciding how to proceed by the end of the year.

For Prime Minister, David Cameron, he’s caught between the rock of this report and the hard place of rejecting it.  Either way there are costs – political and personal.

Plough ahead and he risks upsetting very senior Cabinet colleagues and high-profile party members with constituencies under and around Heathrow’s flight paths, some of whom made election pledges to their voters to resist, at the same time as keeping his party together on EU reform.  On a personal level, his credibility will be under threat if he abandons his pledge while in opposition: “No third runway at Heathrow – no ifs, no buts”.

Discard the findings and do nothing, and he’s in jeopardy of losing political capital by ignoring an independent, objective body that he set up, as well as dismaying the pro-Heathrow expansion Tories in Parliament.

The Gatwick alternative

The Government could always pursue either of the other two options – Gatwick or the extended runway option at Heathrow – described by Sir Howard as ‘plausible’ and ‘credible’.

Britain has not built a new full-length runway in the south east of England since the 1940s.  That very decade war-time leader Winston Churchill famously used words that could have easily been employed today to describe this perennial runway problem: “Now this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”

Perhaps it is.