Let Britain Fly had a difficult birth today. Its proud parent, London First, surrounded by a glittering array of big names from the business world, overdid the hyperbole. Baroness Jo Valentine, chief executive of London First, said that it was not acceptable for politicians “to dither” over new runways “and let our economy wither.” She even went on to ask somewhat over-dramatically, “Do we really want to become an also-ran in the global race?”
Baroness Valentine must know this is exaggeration, even scaremongering. Whatever the pros and cons of expansion in the longer term, the facts are clear: there is no rush for a decision to be taken. The Department for Transport has said that there is enough spare runway capacity in London and the South East until nearly 2030. And survey after survey shows that London remains the top city for business in Europe because of its unparalleled air connections to the rest of the world.
The annual, and influential, survey, carried out by global property consultants Cushman & Wakefield, The European Cities Monitor rates London the top city in which to do business in Europe. In 2011, it found London topped the league for the 22nd year out of 22. Cushman & Wakefield commented: “London is still ranked – by some distance from its closest competitors – as the leading city in which to do business. Paris and Frankfurt remain in second and third place respectively.” The survey found London owes its position to its excellent links to the rest of the world. It has the best external transport, best internal transport and top telecommunications. The 2012 survey produced the same result.
Despite the alleged “dithering” more passengers fly in and out of London than any other city in the world. Paris, its nearest European competitor, is in 5th place.
There is a genuine debate to be had about future airport capacity but Let Britain Fly – and his parent body London First – will lose credibility if it continues to exaggerate the urgency of the need for expansion.
London First and its backers also face another challenge. It is easy for London to make general calls for airport expansion without exploring its impacts on local communities. We hear the obligatory words that the needs of local residents must not be overlooked. But it has never publically faced up to the question: is there any occasion when the environmental and social impacts of expansion at any particular airport are so unacceptable that expansion should be ruled out, whatever the economic benefits? It needs to do so if it is to engage fully in the debate.
Let Britain Fly will have a gilded childhood. £500,000 is going to be spent over the next two years. But its parent body and supporters need to get over the excitement of its birth, calm down and stop giving the impression that London’s economy is in crisis because of a lack of runways. It is simply not true.