Aviation in South East: 'Uncertainty remains'

  • 17 December 2013
  • From the section England
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Expansion at Heathrow or Gatwick airports are the main proposals being considered by the commission

The Davies Commission report has been much anticipated.

Many hoped it would draw a line under the political arguments over how to increase aviation capacity in the South East and give business and the communities potentially affected some certainty.

In fact, while many options have been ruled out there are still several on the table.

Sir Howard Davies said he considered 41 options in all - seven of them in the Thames Estuary.

He's now whittled them down to three potential solutions:

  • adding a third runway at Heathrow
  • lengthening an existing runway at Heathrow
  • building a second runway at Gatwick

'Outside option'

But, crucially, he's not ruled out a hub airport on the Isle of Grain. It's not on the shortlist because he says he wants to look at it in more detail.

It looks as if it is the outside option, as he stressed it would be significantly more expensive than the other options - up to five times more - and he said it has higher hurdles to clear.

That said, he will look at the feasibility of the plans, the cost and environmental impact and report back in the first six months of 2014.

It is an outcome that has been welcomed by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

His original plan for a hub airport, dubbed Boris Island, may be dead in the water but his hopes for a new hub airport in the South East live on because the Isle of Grain plan, which he also supports, has not been completely dismissed.

The mayor said he would continue to make the case and believed that Sir Howard's assessment of Thames Estuary airport costs were wrong.

He also said a Thames Estuary airport would help the UK regain its lead as a commercial and economic capital.

Proposal for the airport at the Isle of Grain by the company of architect Sir Norman Foster

I'm not sure how well these views will be valued by Sir Howard who told me that he's not sure Boris Johnson has "got a lot more information to give us".

He added: "I think it's important for us to lead this process. I think otherwise people will not be confident that it's objective."

'Uncertainty remains'

Sir Howard said the "commission will work on the environmental dimension", consulting people like the Highways Agency and Network Rail in more detail about whether the "surface transport options are viable or not".

He said: "We'll also look at the impact of closing Heathrow - but I think that's work that we will drive".

Sir Howard denied any suggestion there was any political interference in his decision making.

It was suggested the option to build a new hub was simply kept in for political reasons - ie it would be too toxic to look as if Heathrow expansion was the only option being seriously considered.

However, he did admit that he had "gone back and forth" on the hub airport issue and had only included it in the report last week.

Sir Howard told me he was aware that indecision could blight communities but that uncertainty does remain for people in Kent and Sussex following the publication of today's report.

He expects to make a decision on the Isle of Grain in the first six months of next year but final plans on aviation capacity won't made until after the 2015 election.

Both the Conservative and Labour parties have welcomed the report but remain non-committal on what they see as the best option.

It's not clear whether they can maintain that position up to the next election and instead of ending the political arguments, today's report seems to have helped re-ignite them.

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