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Jo Johnson MP: The UK needs an aviation strategy for London and the south-east

Johnson Jo
Jo Johnson is the Conservative MP for Orpington.

Barely 20 miles from the heart of London lies Biggin Hill airfield. For second world war buffs, this patch of green belt is the spiritual home of “the few”, a place of myth and magic from which Spitfires and Hurricanes manned by crews of unsurpassable bravery launched themselves across the northern Kentish downs to defend a vulnerable capital. During the Battle of Britain, fighters based at RAF Biggin Hill claimed 1,400 enemy aircraft, at the cost of the lives of 453 aircrew.

Today, London Biggin Hill Airport, as it has become, is at the centre of a new battle, which is pitting residents in my constituency against the owners of a scarce resource, one of just three commercial airports within the city limits. At present, the airport, although conveniently located close to the M25, is operating at under half its theoretical potential, as it is prohibited by its long lease with Bromley Council from running fare-paying passenger services and thereby prevented from turning itself into a new Luton.

The tension over the airport’s plans to expand is the consequence of the UK’s historic failure to make long-term provision for runway capacity in the south-east. It makes no sense to expand airports located in residential areas within the M25 when far better solutions exist elsewhere, such as in the Thames estuary. That’s why this government was right to veto a third runway at Heathrow and why Bromley Council would be right to hold the line on the expansion of Biggin Hill.

The more we deal with our structural shortage of airport and airspace capacity by putting in place quick fixes to suburban airports, the longer it will be before the UK engages with the need to build a new hub airport for London. Runway utilisation at Heathrow and Gatwick is operating at about 99 per cent, compared to 70-75 per cent at other big European airports. This is causing delays and reliability problems that are damaging Britain’s competitiveness.

While London has excellent direct connections to its traditional business partners, it lags behind European competitors in serving the BRICs. While it has 215 departures a week to New York, for example, it has only 31 a week to two destinations in mainland China, compared to 56 to three such cities from Paris Charles de Gaulle and the 51 to four such cities from Frankfurt. Britain needs an aviation strategy for the 21st century. Expanding airports in outer London is the wrong answer.

Back in Biggin Hill, unable to take scheduled or holiday charter flights, the airfield is mainly used by hobbyists, business jets and corporate shuttles. Last year, the airport logged around 50,000 flight movements, hardly insignificant, but far fewer than the 125,000 the lease permits. But as pressure mounts for quick fixes to London’s most pressing infrastructural problem – a lack of landing slots and restricted airspace – the airport is seizing the moment to push for changes to the 125 year lease.

The Olympics have provided the perfect pretext. Earlier this year, it requested more flights during the Games, as well as the right to take fare-paying passengers. This application was rebuffed by residents in a public consultation and rejected by Bromley. Now, it is back, with a revised application that pushes for longer operating hours and extra flights in ‘shoulder hours’ during the Olympics, but drops the bid for fare-paying passengers. A new six week public consultation is underway.

While large numbers of additional private flights can be expected during the Games, putting a premium on both airport and airspace capacity, especially during peak periods, residents believe Biggin Hill can help accommodate the extra demand within the terms of the existing cap. My constituents naturally want Biggin Hill to play a proud part in making the Games a success, but they also oppose ad hoc changes to the lease that might set a precedent for the permanent expansion of the airport. They are right to be wary.


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