‘Gutless’ is how this morning’s papers are describing the government’s decision to yet again delay the decision on where in the South East to build a new runway. On the Today programme this morning, the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin attempted to explain why the government has changed its mind — noting ‘we could have said we couldn’t have taken this forward at all’:
‘I think we’ve made some important movements already. We’ve accepted what Davies says about the need for additional capacity in the South East and we’ve said that we will make a decision on that over the summer’.
Most significantly, McLoughlin signalled the government is still toying with expansion at Gatwick. ‘Please get off the fixation of a third runway’, he told John Humphreys. ‘It could be a second runway at Gatwick’:
‘We have come to a conclusion — that what Howard Davis says in his report, that the extra capacity is needed by either Gatwick having an additional runway or by the two options that are there for Heathrow’.
Yet even the new date of next summer appears to be flexible. McLoughlin said that a decision on whether to build another runway at Heathrow or not will arrive ‘hopefully in the summer of next year’, adding ‘the summer of next year would still allow us to get the additional capacity by 2030’.
Cynics may say this delay is all about the London Mayoral election; the Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith is one the most trenchant critics of Heathrow expansion and has promised to resign his seat if the government pushes it through. Delaying the decision until after next May’s mayoral election would avoid a clash between the Tory leadership, who are broadly pro-Heathrow, and their mayoral candidate. But McLoughlin denied the delay was about politics:
‘The simple fact is: we have known for a very long time when the mayoral elections were going to be. So if we deliberately wanted to say “we weren’t going to make this till after the mayoral elections” we’d have just set the timetable for another 12 months’.
But this doesn’t quite hold up. The Airports Commission report was released on 1 July this year, whereas Zac Goldsmith was selected as mayoral candidate on 2 October. Although he was seen as the obvious choice, there is a chance the government was keeping its options open and waiting to see if a pro-Heathrow candidate was chosen. Either way, delaying the decision certainly helps Zac, but it won’t help Britain’s standing in the world as a supposed nation of builders.