ALEX BRUMMER: A 'global Britain' must turn dream into reality

ALEX BRUMMER: A 'global Britain' must turn dream into reality

December 17, 2020

ALEX BRUMMER: A ‘global Britain’ must turn this dream into reality

The dramatic reduction in flights worldwide due to the pandemic has done what decades of protests by green warriors failed to do – slashing carbon emissions and noise pollution.

For me personally, the silencing of the pre-dawn rumble of passenger jets from Asia and North America passing over my home on their final descent into Heathrow has been a blessed relief.

That said, I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision in overturning a ruling that a £14billion third runway at Heathrow would breach the Paris Climate Agreement. Now, we need the Government, planning authorities and the airport’s motley collection of overseas owners to get squarely behind it.

What the airport would look like in 2050 following the completion of a third runway and new terminals

Not least because it could be a key element in Britain’s recovery from the pandemic, helping to drive our future as an entrepreneurial and ambitious trading nation outside the EU. Together with a wider infrastructure renewal which includes the HS2 fast rail link between London and the North, and a bold green energy agenda, it will bolster productivity, growth and skilled jobs.

The quest for a third runway has been battled out over two decades, with existing runways stretched to the limits in pre-Covid times. Indeed, Heathrow was Europe’s busiest airport, handling 81 million passengers a year compared with 65 million at its rival hub Frankfurt. That reflects Britain’s role as one of the world’s busiest financial centres, with a huge services sector accounting for nearly 80 per cent of national output.

But when Heathrow is operating at close to full capacity, it requires only the smallest blip – a malfunctioning baggage carousel, an industrial dispute or ice on the wings – to bring the airport to a grinding halt.

Johnson, we know, is a Heathrow expansion sceptic. Influenced at times by his ‘green’ buddy Lord (Zac) Goldsmith, the former MP for Richmond Park, he once threatened to lie down in front of the bulldozers if a third runaway were to be built (file image)

That is a personal nightmare for passengers and an enormous blow to Britain’s reputation as a good place to do business. In recent years Europe’s other entrepot airports have benefited at our expense because of their superior runway facilities. Schipol in Amsterdam, Charles de Gaulle in Paris and Frankfurt each have four runways.

And there is evidence to suggest that our chaotic Covid tier system and slowness to introduce airport testing has given rival airports the chance to gain yet more traffic.

Johnson, we know, is a Heathrow expansion sceptic. Influenced at times by his ‘green’ buddy Lord (Zac) Goldsmith, the former MP for Richmond Park, he once threatened to lie down in front of the bulldozers if a third runaway were to be built.

Since arriving at No 10, his opposition to it has cooled, while the House of Commons has voted overwhelmingly in favour. A government that is genuinely serious about its ‘Global Britain’ agenda has no option but to make a third runway a reality.

Yet the opposition remains formidable. Green groups are now vowing to take the fight to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. They are likely to be supported by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. I find this astonishing given the economic desolation of the capital, to which an absence of tourists and international business visitors is a contributory factor. A staggering 22 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product is generated in the greater London area.

And despite their supportive words yesterday, there must be serious concern about the willingness of Heathrow’s owners to get behind the runway. With passenger numbers down 88 per cent year-on-year in November to 747,000, will Heathrow’s major investors, including the Spanish construction empire Ferrovial and the Qatar Investment Authority, really want to dig deep right now?

Earlier this year, Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye warned the project should be delayed for five years. But we cannot wait. Britain needs an expanded Heathrow that can handle the 142million passengers a year projected in the next ten to 25 years as soon as possible. Covid should not be an excuse for putting that vital expansion on hold.

Overseas owners who have drained Heathrow of £4billion in dividends since 2012 have a duty to fight for immediate expansion. Anything less will be a betrayal.

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