The Heathrow Saga Drags On

With the ink on Sir Howard Davies' report on Britain's new runway barely dry - spoiler alert, it's Heathrow, to no one's surprise - the case made for the West London airport to be the recipient of a third runway is already being picked apart.

The reasoning behind the choice of Heathrow, rather than Gatwick (or other options - Boris Island, anyone?), is primarily based on economic rationale. With Heathrow already operating as the main freight hub for the UK, it makes sense to expand its capacity in that respect. It also acts as the primary airport for long distance travel (i.e. further afield than Europe), meaning that little logistical change will be necessary for commercial airlines. It should, therefore, be a simple argument. The fiscal data speaks for itself and, as the government drags the country out of the recession, emphasis should be put on the business and economic case for any major infrastructure decisions.

However, that isn't the case here. There are the obvious environmental ramifications of adding a third runway - the current pollution levels in the areas surrounding Heathrow are already worryingly high and local campaigners talk of increased risks to their health. There are also those who claim that, by expanding an airport that already has a monopoly on long distance travel, the rest of the country is missing out. There is plenty of capacity available at Stansted, for instance, which would make the new runway (and its subsequent additional flights and destinations) more accessible to those who don't happen to live in the vicinity of West London. 

You can be certain that Labour will be stuck in two minds here. The temptation will be to swiftly back the Davies Report and then chastise Cameron for potentially reneging on his 2009 statement that "The third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts." Their other move would be to oppose the report's conclusion and, combining the additional London runway with the government's shelving of the promised electrification and upgrades to railway routes in the Midlands and the North, take aim at the Conservatives' much-championed 'Northern Powerhouse' plan. Judging by Harriet Harman's line of questioning in today's PMQs, it's likely to be the former.

Whether Cameron will accept the report's findings or not is unclear, but one thing is certain: he won't be in office when any proposed airport expansion occurs. There is a distinct possibility that there will be a Boris-Goldsmith PM-Mayor tandem in power by then, and, with both of them vehemently opposed to an expansion of Heathrow, that is a thought that will surely be at the forefront of Cameron's mind (and vocally reinforced by the opposition) as he ponders his next move.