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Westminster Watch: The long view on airport capacity

The ongoing runway debate brings to light what has so far been a lesser-discussed area of airport expansion: Stansted. Political lobbyist Gareth Morgan looks at this forgotten issue

What happens after 2030? That is the date that Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission’s analysis showed one net additional runway was needed by. The UK government has finally set its ‘direction of travel’ with a third runway at Heathrow and we are now working through the politics and legality of that with a view to having a final policy in the winter of 2017-8. 

Surely that means, bar the final swings of the various campaigns over the next year, the airports issue will be put to bed fairly soon? Not quite. The commission said that “…even with a third runway at Heathrow, there would be likely to be sufficient demand to justify a second additional runway by 2050 or, in some scenarios, earlier”.

Now that the decision in favour of Heathrow expansion has been made, surely the government should now be beginning to think about this period?

That is certainly the case Birmingham airport and Manchester Airport Group (the owners of Stansted) will be making. In fact, if there is anyone most frustrated by the latest delay it might well be them – they want to start talking about post-2030 seriously. 

Take Stansted. It’s in effect been squeezed out of the capacity debate after Davies made clear fairly early on that its case wasn’t as strong as LHR/LGW for immediate expansion. Until the LHR/LGW decision is made, it will always find it hard to be heard on the prospects of its own expansion. 

There are absolutely MPs who are interested in the issue – for example, Sir Alan Haselhurst, the MP for Saffron Walden (which encompasses Stansted) is focused on preventing it, and there are Labour MPs on the Stansted Express route who see the economic good the airport could provide their communities – but it isn’t yet a big issue. It will be their lobbyists’ job to make sure it is eventually. So what does that lobbying look like?

Pros and cons
First, there will be the positive side. Expect reports in papers about the economic prospects of the areas around Stansted – such as Harlow in the south, and Cambridge and Peterborough in the north – and how they will be the export engines of the future. About how the hi-tech sectors in the region are driving higher growth than the UK as a whole, and how that region needs an easier way to connect to the world.

We’ll see MPs forming groups to support the concept, major business groups picking up the idea and party conference events on the theme. 

There will also be the negative side. The politics of airport expansion will mean that the relatively quiet Stop Stansted Expansion grouping will gather its strength again. But most interesting will be the extent that Stansted’s owners try to stymie Gatwick. 

They know that if Gatwick is prohibited from expanding, then the prospects of Stansted expansion are stronger. Expect to see Stansted supporters backing anti-Gatwick groups and MPs. 

They’ll want the fighting over the decision around LHR and LGW to be over... because then it’s their turn.


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