Uk: Air review to offer ‘flying start’

The head of the coalition’s aviation review promised today to lay the ground for the next government to get off to a “flying start” with airport expansion after the 2015 general election.

Sir Howard Davies, who has been asked by ministers to examine ways of increasing aviation capacity, acknowledged criticism that his commission was a way of kicking the highly contentious issue into the long grass.

He said he would not be setting out a preferred option before the next election but was trying to “make best use of (his) time in the long grass”.

“We will be looking at all the options there are and trying to narrow them down to a small number that look feasible and plausible to us. That’s what we will be targeting to do by the end of next year,” he said, referring to the interim report he is tasked with bringing forward by the end of 2013.

Sir Howard, a former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, said the Government’s move to delay any decision-making until after the next election was “above my pay grade” but vowed to come up with a “substantial piece of work” in the meantime.

“I have reflected quite hard on the criticisms of ‘long grass’ that the mayor of London and Michael Heseltine say that this is booted into the long grass,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“So I have decided, well, politics dictate that for reasons we all understand that the coalition has said they are not going to make this decision before the election, so how can you make best use of your time in the long grass? And what I think we can do is to do a lot of the preparatory work.”

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That includes work towards a national airport policy statement, detailed business cases and environmental and noise assessments.

“We do have to do all of that and I think we can do that under the aegis of the commission so that when the new government comes into office in 2015, when they make a decision, it will have a flying start,” Sir Howard said.

He said that his work, culminating in a full report in summer 2015, would be a “really expert piece of work looking at how we think about airport capacity, which I hope will be internationally leading-edge”.

“In order to build enough political consensus around the eventual solution, we will need to show that we have done in-depth analysis of the other options. At the moment, consensus is what is lacking,” he said.

Sir Howard said he would be looking at the potential to make better use of existing capacity, which could have a “short-term impact”, as well as studying the options for expansion, including a third Heathrow runway, connecting Heathrow and Gatwick, a new airport in the Thames Estuary or even the expansion of Stansted.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who has previously accused the Government of a “fudgerama”, said today that the Davies commission should report earlier.

“I think what is going on now is a good thing, it’s a productive process. I just think it could be speeded up, and there is absolutely no need to delay to 2015,” he told Today.

“Can I tell you in the next nine years how many runways they are going to build in China? They are going to build 52. How many are we going to build in the UK? None at all. It is a policy of utter inertia.”

Some have viewed the Conservatives’ approach to aviation with a degree of cynicism, arguing that the Tories are, deep down, keen to reverse their earlier decision and give the go-ahead to a third runway.

However, such an expansion at the west London airport is fraught with political sensitivity, with the Liberal Democrats and Mr Johnson firmly against it.

Mr Johnson said today that option “simply will not happen”. The Mayor is advocating the creation of a new airport in the Thames Estuary.