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Aviation: Don’t say one thing and do another

20 November 2012

4:32 PM

20 November 2012

4:32 PM

Some tickets to the Spectator’s next debate, ‘No Ifs, No Buts: Heathrow Must Have a Third Runway’, are still available. Tim Yeo, chairman of the energy and climate change select committee, and Jon Moulton, chairman of Better Capital, and influential Tory backbencher Graham Brady will be speaking in favour of the motion, while Daniel Moylan, Boris’ right hand man, and John Stewart, chairman of the ClearSkies campaign, will oppose the motion. Click here for more information and the box office. In the piece below, Cheryl Gillan MP, the former Secretary of State for Wales, discusses many of the economic issues that surround this vital political debate.

The danger of putting the cart before the horse – or the railway before the airport

The Coalition Government has made it clear that its main priority is to return the UK to sustainable, long-term economic prosperity. With the Prime Minister’s dramatic assertion that this country is in the economic equivalent of a state of warfare, he raises the spectre of sweeping aside blocks to development and driving through a vision which neither brooks dissent nor considers alternatives. But, at one and the same time, by delaying the Davies report on airport capacity, he himself has turned the Department of Transport into a block to delivering that priority.

Maintaining our place as a global aviation hub is a vital part in securing our economic future. The UK is one of the best and most connected countries in the world, but the last 50 years has seen Britain fail to keep up with our international competitors in increasing airport capacity. The Government, whilst working hard to stabilise the economy and ramping up the rhetoric against consultations and judicial reviews, has delayed the process which will secure the future of aviation, how it will fit into this plan for recovery and ensure the integrity of a future integrated transport system. The prospect of a third runway at Heathrow has caused concern, particularly to residents who live near and under the flight paths. The Government has enshrined in the Coalition Agreement its opposition to a third runway. Yet the importance of maintaining our place as a global aviation hub increases and the need to reassess our aviation policy and the future it will play in improving Britain’s economy becomes ever more pressing.

In September, the Government set up the independent commission chaired by Sir Howard Davies, to recommend options for maintaining the UK’s status as a global aviation hub. Part of its investigation will be to recommend options for meeting the UK’s international and domestic connectivity needs. However its final deadline has been pushed out to 2015 and observers could be forgiven for thinking that is to ensure that any promises over Heathrow would not need to be broken by the Coalition Government should expansion at Heathrow be the recommended alternative.

But the rest of the world is not going to wait. Recently, on our doorstep, Dutch aviation chiefs have even launched a new campaign for Schipol Airport promoting one of its six runways by naming it “Heathrow’s third runway”, exploiting our obvious weakness in this area. The world’s major carriers have placed substantial orders for the new larger planes such as Airbus’s A380 and travel patterns will be changing with the emergence of economies such as India and China strengthen and draw more and more business eastwards.

We simply cannot wait until 2015 for recommendations on our future airports. There are proposals from The Mayor of London for a new airport in East London or expansion at Stansted. If the Government has ruled out Heathrow, then these two options, together with Gatwick and Luton, should form the basis of the review and it should be delivered rapidly.

The Commission’s results should then drive the resulting infrastructure projects, particularly High Speed Rail 2. This approach of course raises the question why the Government is ploughing ahead with a fixed point to point railway such as HS2 when our airport capacity demands may result in that new airport being in the east of London – building on the Olympic legacy and delivering more regeneration and utilising the new station capacity at Stratford. With the Commission, on a timetable dictated by Government, aiming to present its final report in 2015, the same year the Bill for HS2 is expected to receive Royal Assent, continuing with this £34 billion project seems to me put the cart before the horse.

HS2 is being branded as a solution to future transport capacity issues, but the project lacks vital connectivity with other facets of our transport infrastructure, namely a proper link with a major UK airport or with HS1. It simply does not make sense to continue with a project of this size and expense when we do not yet know if it will complement the recommendations of the Davies Commission.

The Government needs to implement an aviation strategy that will link up with the rest of the UK’s transport system, joining it together and offering at its heart an infrastructure that will preserve our status as a leading global aviation hub. In its current guise, I do not see that HS2 can play a part in such a plan unless and until the decisions on what will be our major hub airport are made. Under the Government’s present proposals we shall finish up with an expanded airport(s) to meet international traveller demand – or a brand new airport – without any of our airports having a station on our High Speed train network. What are we trying to do?

The Right Hon Cheryl Gillan MP is the Conservative member for Chesham and Amersham

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