Heathrow? Gatwick? Could Birmingham Airport be the answer?

Heathrow Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Heathrow? Gatwick? Both? Or will we get a new runway at Birmingham Airport to link-up with the planned HS2 station at Birmingham International.

"Either or", "Both" or "Both and"?

It has to go down as one of the most anguished decisions in recent British politics.

It's certainly one of the longest drawn out.

Throughout the last Parliament the argument went back and forth between Heathrow and Gatwick over the site of a new runway to ease airport congestion in the south east. Then arguments were especially intense among senior Conservatives with constituencies neighbouring the one or the other.

Then came the suggestion by then Mayor of London Boris Johnson that a brand new airport be built in the Thames Estuary.

That kept us all enjoyably entertained until the Airports Commission headed by Sir Howard Davies arrived at the same conclusion as Birmingham Airport's Chief Executive. Paul Kehoe had already concluded that environmentally as well as economically, "Boris Island is for the birds".

Image copyright Foster + Partners
Image caption The idea of the Boris Island airport in the Thames Estuary was refloated back in March

Eventually the decision, like many another thorny questions, was put off until after last year's general election. And still we wait.

The government had been expected to make known its decision on Tuesday 18 October 2016 but even that was put off by Prime Minister Theresa May for a further one-week pause so that ministers could air what are clearly bitter disagreements.

But at least we can now expect a cabinet sub-committee to declare the government's "preferred option "on Tuesday 25 October 2016: to be followed, we're told, by a consultation period culminating in a Commons vote in twelve months' time.

That has been the cue for yet another chorus of accusations the government is "fudging the issue" yet again.

Image copyright Heathrow
Image caption A new runway at Heathrow would be built about two miles north of the airport's current two

We have seen already how that "either or" question is capable of evolving into "both", and even "both and". Now comes something more akin to "neither".

By accident or design, as Birmingham Airport's managers point out, it is due to become Britain's first "HS2 airport" in 2026 when the 38-minute journey time from London Euston will put on a similar footing with the capital as Heathrow and Gatwick are now.

None of the above

As the clock ticks down, the Liberal Democrat candidate for 'metro mayor' in the West Midlands, the business woman and university lecturer Beverley Nielsen has also entered the fray, calling instead for a second runway at Birmingham as "a more practical option which would be good for the West Midlands and good for the country as a whole."

So the next new runway does not have to be in London at all!

Image copyright Birmingham Airport
Image caption Will a new runway at Birmingham "be a transformative solution to us all?"

"By integrating the HS2 interchange station into the airport, aligning it with runway 2 and ensuring it is linked to the rest of the airport, road and rail infrastructure," she says "we can offer a transformative solution for both the Midlands and the rest of the country."

The terminal has been expanded already to be able to handle twice the 11 million passengers who use it every year. Ms Nielsen's vision is of a major national airport handling up to seven times that number.

The existing runway has also been extended to enable direct flights to the Far East and South Asia. Having just one runway does not stop the double-decker super-jumbo from serving every day one of only four British airports capable of handling it.

But planning permission for the extension of that runway was granted on condition that plans for a second runway near Junction Four of the M6 were bounced into touch.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Would a new runway put Birmingham on a similar footing to Gatwick. Green Party candidates at Solihull do not think so

Now the ten Green Party councillors who form the official opposition on Solihull Borough Council would like it kicked out of play altogether.

Cllr Chris Williams told me he was surprised Ms Nielsen was setting her party's customary 'eco' credentials to one side for the sake of a 'hub' airport at Birmingham which was bound to breach environmental restrictions. He was convinced that a planned second runway was an idea whose time had long gone.

Compromise candidate

But would Birmingham really need a second runway to emerge as a plausible compromise candidate, helping to get those feuding cabinet ministers off the hook?

Like Birmingham, Gatwick has just one runway. And yet it handles a whopping 40 million passengers a year. Britain's 'number two' airport it may be, but it is still one of the busiest in Europe.

So here we are again, back at Gatwick, where my stream of consciousness began.

Image copyright Heathrow Airport/PA
Image caption Artist impression of third runway at Heathrow. But why Heathrow when we have Birmingham?

No wonder we've been going round in ever-decreasing circles on this question for so many years. So what's another 12 months?

I'll have more in this weekend's Sunday Politics Midlands in its usual 11.00 slot on BBC One this Sunday morning, 23 October 2016.