Airport Commission: Final Report

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Of course there are Members on both sides of the House who have a constituency interest in this matter. So far, we have heard from hon. Members who have constituency concerns about the expansion of Heathrow. I, too, have constituency concerns, but they relate to the expansion of Gatwick and many of them sound similar to the issues about Heathrow raised by several of my hon. Friends and others. However, all those concerns must be beside the point. We should all agree that we need to take this decision in the national interest, for reasons that were well described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns).

At the risk of sounding like Basil Fawlty, I have to ask, “What is the point?” What is the point of setting up an Airports Commission at vast cost to seek expert advice and provide the right solution if that preferred option is simply to be swept aside? It would be worse still if it were to be swept aside for narrow political reasons. I also challenge the suggestion that the Airports Commission offered the Government three equal options regarding which airport should be developed. I listened with some alarm as the Secretary of State for Transport told the “Today” programme on 30 October that the Davies report “gave us three options” before conceding that Heathrow was the preferred option. No reading of the Airports Commission report could possibly lead to any conclusion other than that Heathrow was the unequivocal recommendation of the commission.

Davies said that Heathrow was the “best answer” and that it presented the “strongest case”. Yes, Davies said that Gatwick was “plausible”, but he then went on to explain why Gatwick did not offer the same benefits as Heathrow. Those benefits include connectivity. Gatwick lies to the south of London and is not connected to the transport network in the same way as Heathrow is. The rail link to Gatwick is already a joke. It is over-subscribed and it is of course not going to be connected to HS2. Davies also calculated that the economic benefits of choosing Heathrow were considerably greater than those for Gatwick. He identified up to £147 billion in net present value of economic benefit in the increase to GDP from choosing Heathrow, compared with £89 billion of economic benefit from choosing Gatwick. That is a considerable difference.  

Thirdly, and, in a sense, most significantly, Davies pointed out that Gatwick could not offer the connectivity of Heathrow. That goes to the heart of the matter: we need a single hub airport, and that is what almost all the airlines are saying. The great danger now would be to produce a solution that does not deliver that hub and to watch what happens to London as a consequence were we then to lose business to our international competitors. New York has two airports, and where is the hub on the east coast of the United States? It is O’Hare, in Chicago, a far bigger airport than there is in New York, offering far more connectivity, and New York loses out as a consequence. Tokyo has two airports, but where is the new hub and where is the new business going in the far east? It is going not to Tokyo, but to Seoul, which has a hub airport. Although competition has of course been advantageous and the break-up of the monopolistic ownership of airports has delivered benefits to passengers in the form of an improved passenger experience, the idea that competition would be a good thing and somehow we could run two hub airports, when all the experience has told us that that is what the airlines do not want to do and that splitting business between Heathrow and Gatwick was such a disaster for British Airways, is one for the birds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) said that Gatwick offers, for instance, flights to Jakarta, but Garuda has just announced that it is going to leave Gatwick and go back to Heathrow, because Heathrow offers it better connectivity with a direct flight to Jakarta. We would be making a serious mistake, on the basis of the worst kind of short-term decision making, if we ignored the unequivocal recommendation of this report.

In 1974, the Labour Government cancelled the channel tunnel proposed then by a Conservative Government and cancelled the Maplin Sands airport proposal, and we are still paying the price. The channel tunnel link was built decades later and the rail link was then built way behind that of the French, and we still do not have a hub airport. Lord Adonis, now to be chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, described those as “stupid, short-termist decisions”. We have a clear recommendation from the Airports Commission, the evidence is clear, the Government set up the report and now is not the time to run away from it.

Alexander BlackGatwick