To say that rising tensions between Zac Goldsmith and David Cameron could result in a “bust-up” is to exaggerate – I can hardly imagine the London mayoral candidate channeling Eric Joyce and head-butting the Prime Minister – but it’s certainly giving both parties a headache. Earlier this week, Goldsmith announced that it would be an “enormous betrayal” were Cameron to back the expansion of Heathrow airport. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, is dragging his feet in making a final decision between Heathrow and Gatwick. He’s blaming the need for more “confidence building” about the environmental impact of a new runway; really, he wants to remove the issue from next May’s mayoral elections.
The expansion debate is one that has been going on for longer than Goldsmith has been alive. An early plan to expand Heathrow north of the Bath Road was abandoned in 1953; no new full-length runway has been laid down in the South East of England since the 1940s. For years, we’ve been told that Cameron has reached the moment when he must take a decision, but all he’s done is kick the can further along the runway. So what’s another delay, you might ask.
The problem, as William Hague pointed out on Tuesday, is that the longer this debate goes on, the harder it becomes to decide, in an area where the population grows every year. The situation worsens when you consider how painfully slowly UK infrastructure projects get finished. Plans for a railway linking Paddington station to the City of London and the docks were approved by Parliament in the 1880s; Crossrail will only be fully completed in 2019.
Politicians may want to bury their heads in the sand, but Heathrow expansion is inevitable. Boris Island is too expensive; Gatwick is unlikely to provide much of the type of capacity which is most urgently needed: long-haul destination markets. A bigger Heathrow will not inflict noise nuisance on more people than the airport does today, and the people affected would be far better compensated. The Northwest Runway scheme at Heathrow, favoured by the Airports Commission, is technically feasible and does not involve massive, untested infrastructure.
The Confederation of British Industry said on Tuesday that delaying a decision on airport expansion could cost the economy more than £5bn. Personally, I’m with the 31% of MPs who want expansion at both Heathrow and Gatwick. But given that the London airport capacity problem has perplexed successive governments for over half a century, I’d settle just for action on Heathrow.