Airport commission – Interim Report Summary and Implications

I was fortunate to be able to attend the first public meeting of the Commission to launch the interim report (straight after the commission had dealt with the press and before the official announcement in the House of Commons by the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin MP, so I managed to get a printed version of the document. The full commission was present although Sir Howard Davies handled the introduction and almost all the questions.

Media headlines were mixed, and in many cases missed the key parts of the document and the commission’s findings.

Key points :

Growth – Commission reported that only one runway required by 2030, and one further runway by 2060.
Location – Suggestion for the first runway was Heathrow (two options) or Gatwick (2nd runway). Options for the second runway were much more open with Stansted adding to the options (and of course what remains from the first runway options).

But this growth is predicated on making better use of what we have : It was clearly recognised that both Gatwick and Heathrow have capacity issues (Gatwick is probably the most used single runway in the world, with Heathrow taking the title for a two runway airport). There is significant spare capacity at Stansted, Luton and other regional airports, with some surface transport (primarily road and rail) improvements to provide alternatives to air and/or better access to improve capacity/usage.

The report dismissed all other suggestions for further airports (supporting the views of this blog previously and many campaigners including RSPB, Friends of North Kent Marshes and local Medway Council (unitary) and Kent County Council(although it must be said that KCC’s suggestions for handling growth were rejected).

So where does an airport on the Isle of Grain (Hoo Peninsula) fit in?

The report indicates that serious consideration was given to all proposals, especially the Norman Foster and Transport for London (TfL/Boris Johnson) options.The commission created their own hybrid version (taking elements from the various submissions) and worked up a scheme that would be located further away from the Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) storage facility at Grain. The commission recognised the environmental issues and the lack of any detail of the surface transport needs and implications (road and rail). The other agreement was that Heathrow Airport (and also, probably, London City and London Southend Airports) would have to close.

The commission’s report also highlights the difference between airport developments in the rest of the world. In the UK, all the airports are in public hands and without state control and enforced changes would come at a high price. There was even a suggestion that key airports may have to be nationalised (at considerable cost, with high compensation) to remove the ‘competition element’. This would mean a massive gamble on what income would be generated to pay for it. There are EU rules against public subsidy of airports that would need to be considered.

So why left in?. The commission agreed that an Grain option was a massive undertaking and that perhaps not enough time has been available to make the case. They have agreed to give them a little longer to work up the option, but a decision still needs to be made by summer 2014.

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London, not Kent) is continuing to argue for massive development in North and North West Kent. The vacated site at Heathrow would also contribute to a massive redevelopment. opportunity (but ignores the massive infrastructure investments in the Heathrow area (and much more to come) that are driven by the Heathrow affect.

What Next ?
The major factor will be how the Westminster Politicians take this report. History is littered with studies and development decisions that have then been dropped (e.g. Foulness).

There is a general consensus that the Isle of Grain option is still a non-starter (operationally, economically and environmentally) but it will be a case of keeping an eye on proceedings and continuing to remind the decision makers of these issues.

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