Decades after it became obvious that southeast England needs at least one more runway to allow London and the British economy to keep growing, the majority Conservative government says it won’t decide the matter for at least six more months.
LONDON — About 70 years have passed since greater London got a new airport runway, seven decades of economic growth and stupendous wealth that have transformed the city into a global capital to rival New York and Paris.
But every time there is fog or snow or heavy rain or even a blown tire on an aircraft, there is enormous disruption at London Heathrow Airport, Europe’s busiest, running at 98 percent of capacity. Delays are common at the best of times, passengers miss important connecting flights, and even Gatwick Airport, which relies on short-haul and charter flights, is near capacity.
Yet decades after it became obvious that southeast England needs at least one more runway to allow London and the British economy to keep growing, the majority Conservative government says it remains unwilling to make a politically divisive decision on the matter for at least six more months while it continues to study the issue.
A decision will be harder to dodge. After three years and at a cost of more than $30 million, an independent commission said Wednesday that it strongly and unanimously favored building a third runway at Heathrow for clear economic and strategic reasons. Its choice was strongly supported by the business lobby, the Confederation of British Industry and, subject to environmental considerations, the opposition Labour Party.
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Prime Minister David Cameron is having enough trouble keeping his government and party calm over negotiations with the European Union (EU) over British membership before an in-or-out referendum on “Brexit” to come before the end of 2017. The contretemps over Heathrow, however predictable, threatens to further divide a party that is already in growing turmoil over the EU question.
Officially, the government’s transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, said his department would consider the commission’s advice in detail. “As a nation we must be ambitious and forward-looking,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to answer a vital question.”
But prominent Conservative politicians, such as London Mayor Boris Johnson, have come out swinging to oppose the recommendation. Johnson, considered a possible successor to Cameron before the next general election, said Wednesday: “It’s not going to happen.”
Johnson called the idea of a third Heathrow runway “catastrophic” for residents and continued to favor building a new airport in the Thames estuary to the east of London, which the Airports Commission rejected long ago as impractical and too expensive.
“It’s very difficult for people who have campaigned passionately, as everyone in the Conservative Party did, at least in 2010, against a third runway, no ifs, no buts, then to execute a U-turn,” Johnson told BBC radio.
Five years ago, Cameron threw out a Labour government decision to build a third runway at Heathrow. Then leading a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, who oppose any new runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick, Cameron also faced enormous opposition from his own Conservatives, who represent voters who live in and around the airports. He had campaigned in 2009 on a promise not to expand Heathrow, with “no ifs or buts,” as he said then.
Almost as important as Johnson’s stance, Zac Goldsmith, a Conservative legislator considered a likely successor to Johnson as London mayor, also strongly opposes Heathrow expansion and has threatened to resign his seat if it goes ahead. Other prominent Cabinet ministers with constituencies in the southeast, such as the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, and the international development secretary, Justine Greening, are opposed, given concerns about more noise and pollution.
But the powerful chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, a favorite of Cameron’s and his deputy in government, is reportedly for the Heathrow expansion, as is Sajid Javid, the business secretary.
Many residents around Heathrow, despite being dependent on the airport for their jobs, have campaigned against expansion, and the residents of Harmondsworth, a village mentioned in the Domesday Book — an 11th-century survey of English lands — that would likely be erased, have been particularly unhappy. One resident told the BBC on Wednesday, “It would be an act of barbarism” and promised legal action; another, however, said he wanted an end to the uncertainty so he could decide whether to fix up his house.
The Airports Commission, led by an economist, Howard Davies, was set up in 2012 as a means to kick a difficult choice down the existing runways and get past May’s general election. In a preliminary report in December 2013, the commission concluded that another runway at Gatwick and a controversial option to simply extend one of the existing Heathrow runways were “credible options.” But Wednesday’s final report clearly stated that a new northwest runway for Heathrow represented a much better choice for expansion than Gatwick, both for passengers and for freight.
The Heathrow choice would add $230 billion in economic growth over 60 years and 70,000 jobs by 2050, and provide better connections to the world for Britons, including those living outside London, the commission said. The new runway would allow Heathrow to double its passenger capacity by 2050 and increase takeoffs and landings from about 480,000 now to 740,000. The added capacity could also bring down the cost of flying for passengers.
But the commission emphasized that a new runway should meet more stringent noise and environmental standards and suggested, for example, banning flights from 11:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., which a third runway would make possible. It proposed a legal “noise envelope,” arguing that a third runway should produce no more noise than the current two, and suggested that the government rule out a fourth runway.
Gatwick has half the traffic of Heathrow and one runway, while Heathrow’s main European rivals as a hub airport already have considerably more: Schiphol in Amsterdam has six runways, and Frankfurt and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport have four each.
Davies understood from the start that his task was complicated. Asked by the BBC if the politicians would respond, he laughed. “We’ve presented a persuasive case and a new case,” he said.
He pointed out that economically and politically, Britain’s international reputation and that of its government were also at stake.
“As we’ve gone around the world, we’ve found it’s become a rather symbolic point,” Davies said. “Is London prepared to make the decisions it needs to remain a global city? I think ministers will realize a decision is needed.”