Ten years have passed since the Labour government launched its South East and East of England airports study, which the High Court initially ruled was unlawful – for excluding Gatwick – in a judicial review which I proposed.
The Thames Estuary Airport proposal, then described as being at ‘Cliffe’ (in the constituency which I now represent), was ruled out on both environmental and economic grounds, but the Labour government recommended a second runway at Stansted in 2011-12, a third runway at Heathrow in 2015-20 and, eventually, a second runway at Gatwick in the mid-2020s.
None of those recommendations have been progressed under the coalition government, since they were ruled out by both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at the 2010 election, while Labour’s always unrealistic projection of 400-600 million passenger movements in the UK by 2030 was further undermined by a weak economy.
That does not mean that we should never build any new runways in the South-East. That, as business leaders rightly argue, would be a ridiculous and highly economically damaging policy, albeit one potentially supported by the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative party was always set to review its policy for the next parliament, and government forecasts are still for 300-400 million passenger movements by 2030.
Proposals by the Mayor of London for ‘Boris Island’ or varying Thames Estuary options have rightly been derided as ‘pie in the sky’. The environmental arguments against are overwhelming, but the economics of such a new airport are also frankly incredible. The £50-80 billion cost, even if paid initially by purported ‘private investors’, would add at least £50 to the price of every ticket. Why would airlines or anyone else want to pay that when existing airports could be expanded instead at a fraction of the cost?
It is now time for my party at least to engage seriously in a debate about which proposals are credible for future expansion of capacity, something which it appears even Boris Johnson is now willing to do with his suggestion of Stansted expansion supported by a Crossrail extension. I look forward to kicking off that debate with colleagues and the aviation minister in Parliament today.