After three months in the job, the UK prime minister Theresa May faces her toughest challenge yet when her cabinet meets today to take a decision on airport expansion in south-east England. Will it be a third runway at Heathrow? Or an extension of one of the existing two runways? Or a second one at Gatwick?
The expectation is that Heathrow has it and, after a delay of about 40 years, the third runway, costing at least £20 billion (Dh89.88bn) in today’s money, will get the go-ahead, albeit with so many caveats, conditions and confusions that it will be many years yet, if ever, before it gets built.
Britain’s business community and the City, concerned that the country is losing out to more extensive hubs in Frankfurt, Paris, Schiphol and the massive airports in the Middle East, have been big supporters of the project for years.
In the post-Brexit world, they see airport expansion as even more important, although stop short of the silly statements of Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, who last week announced that new airport capacity will help the country “grasp the opportunities that Brexit provides” and secure trade deals with emerging markets. Considering that, at best, it will be another 15 years before a plane touches down on the new runway, Mr Fox and the Brexiteers are not going to get much help there.
A project of this size and importance should by rights lift a nation’s spirits, as the Channel Tunnel did – but not this time. I doubt there has ever been a thornier, more complicated and emotionally divisive infrastructure proposal than this one, anywhere in the world. Mrs May faces implacable opposition even inside her own cabinet, with Boris Johnson and Justine Greening passionately against expansion at Heathrow, while backbench Tory MPs are bizarrely threatening to sue their own government to ensure a third runway is “killed off” in the courts. Zac Goldsmith has promised to resign his safe (Conservative) seat, which happens to be under the flight path, and fight a by-election – which the Tories might not even contest.
And that’s only the start: government approval of a third runway will bring such an avalanche of opposition and vituperation from local councils, environmental groups and lobbyists that only the stoutest hearts will prevail. There will be protests and mass demonstrations on a scale we have never seen before. Is Mrs May tough enough for the fight? Considering that she herself has opposed a third runway in the past – as indeed did David Cameron (he put it in the party manifesto) before he changed his mind – her heart, stout or not, will not really be in it. But she has no choice: a decision has to be taken and she has taken it – as we shall learn imminently.
The cost alone is prohibitive. It is not just a question of a new runway and all the paraphernalia that goes with it. Compensation of £1.25bn would have to be paid to 10,000 householders affected by the flight path. A section of the M25 would be expanded to 14 lanes and placed in a 305 metre-long tunnel under the new runway, at a cost of another £1bn. Then there are fast transport links, car parks (£800 million) and a new terminal, making it the most expensive new runway ever to be built.
Infrastructure projects in Britain seem to cost more and take longer than anywhere else in the world. A brand new airport in Istanbul, with six runways and an annual capacity of 150 million passengers (the largest in the world), is costing £7bn and will be finished even before work at Heathrow has begun. The HS2 railway project, another tough decision for Mrs May, is projected to cost £50bn, or £80m a kilometre, as opposed to £5m per kilometre for Turkey’s new high-speed rail.
But regardless of opposition and cost, Mrs May has to plough on, much as she’d like to avoid the whole issue. London and the south-east have long run out of capacity and Gatwick is not the answer – international travellers, who make up 90 per cent of Heathrow’s traffic, hate it.
Today, Heathrow just about manages to cope with 75 million passengers, or 480,000 flights, a year.
A third runway would take that up to 740,000 flights, or by more than 50 per cent, by 2040 when it becomes fully operational.
Common sense says that is the way to go. Will it ever get built? The odds are against it, but at least Mrs May is prepared to have a go. Good luck to her.
Ivan Fallon is a former business editor of The Sunday Times.
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