It is sixty-six years since a full-length runway was built in the South East of England.
While Amsterdam-Schipol, Frankfurt and Paris have been adding miles more runway, Britain has held ten aviation inquiries since 1946 and gotten nowhere. The coalition is due to publish number eleven within the next week.
There are fears the inquiry will, again, kick the issue of airport expansion into the long grass. Expanding hemmed-in Heathrow – already operating at full capacity (and with a flight path over Transport Secretary Justine Greening’s Putney constituency) – looks like a no-no.
Boris Island – a visionary answer to overcrowding at London’s airports – still looks like a pipe dream: a great idea, but perhaps 20 to 25 years in the future.
In the meantime, business leaders warn Britain will suffer as key air routes – and then world class businesses – migrate to more accessible countries. A report from airport operators BAA (Oxford Economics) predicts that by 2021 British GDP will drop by £8.5 billion per year as over-stretched Heathrow lags behind global aviation growth. 140,000 jobs could go. Yes, BAA would say that: they want to to grow the value of their Heathrow asset.
But it is hard to overstate how vital air connections are to British trade and prosperity. Just consider London’s fantastic tourism and retail success story: three London museums are in the top 10 most visited worldwide: the British Museum (5.85m visitors), the Tate Modern and the National Museum (5m each). And those high-spending tourists make London the world’s shopping centre. London’s retail sales of £62.4bn in 2010 were worth more than those of Los Angeles, Milan, Rome, Madrid and Berlin combined. London is also ahead of New York, Tokyo and Paris in the global retail stakes.
All this is at risk (plus thousands and thousands of jobs in the wider UK economy) if we can’t get shake our Planning Panic – and make some brave decisions. We need more airport capacity now: so why not speed up plans for Boris Island? Or, if it really takes 25 years to build the Thames Estuary airport, give Heathrow its third runway as a temporary measure?