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Nick Cuff: There are alternatives to expanding Heathrow

Cuff_nick_01 On the day that Gordon Brown will give the go ahead for a third runway at Heathrow Nick Cuff argues that expansion of smaller regional airports - Southend, Lydd, Shoreham, Biggin Hill and Kent International - should be considered as alternative strategy. Nick is a Councillor in the London Borough of Wandsworth.

There is no doubt that the South East needs to expand its airport capacity following the sharp growth of air travel.  This increase is set to continue, with the Department of Transport anticipating UK demand to grow from 228 million passenger movements in 2005, to 490 million by 2030. 

However, forecasts can be disputed, after all economics is not an exact science.  Many would argue that the Government’s figures are wildly optimistic.  However, most would not dispute that air passenger volume will continue to rise.  Like it or not, we cannot ignore the economic need for further expansion if the economy is to remain competitive.

The problem with current policy is not its support for aviation growth.  The problem is where that growth should be directed within the South East.  The 2003 White Paper on aviation boxed the Government into further expansion at Heathrow and Stansted. 

The Paper spent a good deal of time ruling out all other alternations.  In the South East, the creation of a new hub airport from scratch was rejected because capital costs were thought to be prohibitive. 

The Paper also briefly considered increasing the volume of traffic at smaller regional hubs.  Whilst it supported expansion in principle, little detail was given - the clear focus was elsewhere.  In essence the Government’s line was: great if it happens, but not too bothered if not.

Although strong on economic analysis, the White Paper glossed over the political and social obstacles to expansion at Heathrow and Stansted. For instance, the Government disregarded that the principle of further development at Heathrow had lost all legitimacy following the Terminal 5 saga.  After a long Public Inquiry, the independent Inspector Roy Vandermeer QC concluded that any further expansion would be unacceptable.  At the time, BAA accepted this conclusion. 

In my opinion, the u-turn on this decision was a grave error.  The planning system relies on legitimacy and public consent if it is to function effectively.  A more balanced analysis would have recognised this and diverted more attention to the potential of significantly expanding one or several of the smaller regional airports at Southend, Lydd, Shoreham, Biggin Hill and Kent International.

For example, let’s take the last one, Kent International Airport - formerly known as Manston.  The airport can currently run 700,000 passenger flights a year.  However, it aspires to much more.  Its draft master plan, a solely private sector initiative, hopes to accommodate three million by 2018 and six million beyond.

Now, compared to Heathrow or even Stansted this expansion is small fry.  However, the airport has enormous potential.   Approximately nine million people live within a two hour travel zone.  And, of the 3.4 million flights taken by Kent residents in 2007, the majority were through the large London airports.

The airport has one of the few long-haul runways in the UK and the extension of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) domestic services in 2009 will bring Thanet closer to London.  This will enable journeys times similar to those from London to Stansted.

The current expansion also has political support.  Cllr Paul Carter, Conservative Leader of Kent County Council has invited Boris Johnson to visit and discard the idea of a new airport in the Thames Gateway.

Admittedly, Kent International Airport may not be the next Heathrow and it will have its own growing pains with its close proximity to Ramsgate.  Yet, with the right impetus it could play a far greater role in meeting the demand needs of the South East. 

Unfortunately for elected representatives, dealing with airport expansion is like dipping your hand in a hornet’s nest.  Airport expansion is painful.  There are no perfect sites and no easy solutions.  However, there is scope to reframe the Government’s approach.  With far greater consideration to the strategic role of smaller regional hubs and with the right impetus, much of the demand could be met with much of the pain removed.


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