Boris: "Stansted replete with potential"

Stansted Airport exterior
Image caption Stansted airport in Essex is replete with potential according to London Mayor, Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson's plans for dealing with airport capacity in the South East have been variously described by his critics as "far fetched", "hare-brained", "insane" and "not commercially viable".

But you would fail to take the Mayor of London seriously at your peril , which is why his plans for a brand new hub airport to the east of London - impacting on our region - carry some weight.

He's brought in consultants and hired engineers in a tireless endeavour to assess the various plans. This week he revealed to MPs that all is becoming clear and he he is finally getting close to a decision.

"There are three options in the frame," he told the Transport Select Committee. "Like a tigress with her cubs, I can see advantages in all three. Each option has much to commend it."

The case for Stansted

With Heathrow almost full and the west of London overcrowded, the mayor believes looking to the east is where the solution will be found.

The three proposals on the shortlist include building the four runway airport beside the Thames estuary, building in the so-called "Boris Island" in the middle of the Thames or development at an enlarged Stansted.

"Stansted is really replete with potential." he told the MPs. "If you look at the journey times, the costs and the potential productivity in the Lea Valley, you can see huge potential for Stansted. It's got a lot going for it."

But before we get too excited, he also outlined the advantages of the Thames option: "My engineers think the journey time to the inner estuary from London would be quicker than to Stansted."

Delay over decision

Mr Johnson is a man impatient for change. He attacked the "glacial speed" at which decisions were being made about building future airports. It meant that Britain was "haemorrhaging jobs and opportunities to our rivals".

Foreign companies, he claimed, were going to other parts of Europe where the air connections were better; it was time to make "the case for boldness" and develop "a better long term sustainable alternative to Heathrow".

Not everyone is convinced by his arguments. Conservative Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South), who sits on the committee, said he was finding it difficult to find reliable forecasts of future passenger demand.

"I haven't yet made up my mind on the hub," he said .

The final decision will be made, not by the Mayor of London, but by whoever is in Government in 2015. That's when the Davies commission will produce its report into air capacity in the UK.

Government time table

Some people (not least Mr Johnson) have accused the government of sweeping the problem under the carpet until after the next election but the new Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, told the hearing that, "just over two years is a reasonable time table".

When asked if his department had made any assessment of the economic implications of a lack of hub capacity, he said: "The one thing the department is not short of is numerous reports which come to us on this issue."

He won't commit himself either way for now but he did observe that in the last few months Gatwick had come up with its own proposal for building a second runway, Heathrow was redeveloping Terminal 2 and Stansted was changing owners.

"Airports are now coming forward with their own proposals... they are now competing with each other and that is an interesting development in aviation policy," said Mr McLoughlin.

As we have said before, the government would much prefer the industry to come up with its own solution to this electorally explosive issue and the Transport Secretary appeared to confirm that.

But Boris Johnson believes the politicians should be in the driving seat. He will press ahead with his own plans, all of which would have a big impact on the eastern region.

Who knows, by the time the Government comes to make its decision, Mr Johnson may be an even more influential player in the debate than he is now.