Howard Davies has surprised us all. We expected his Interim Report, to be published on Tuesday 17th December, to earmark Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick and probably an Estuary option for further consideration. Nobody thought it would be focused almost entirely on Heathrow.
Yet we now have it on good authority that the draft Davies presented to the Chancellor George Osborne for his comments was all about Heathrow. Davies is suggesting a third runway at Heathrow, followed, if the demand is there, by a fourth or a second runway at Gatwick. Both the Stansted and Estuary options had been dropped.
Sources say that Osborne was taken aback at the exclusive focus on Heathrow and suggested to Davies he may need to formally include other options in his report to give it the semblance of balance. We will see what appears on Tuesday.
But it is clear that it is Heathrow and Heathrow alone which interests Davies. This has huge implications.
In the short-term it will delight Heathrow Airport and its business backers. But I suspect that Heathrow, if not all its backers, know that their real struggle has just begun. They will be fully aware that Davies’s naked support for Heathrow is likely to be the trigger for the start of a huge campaign against the expansion of Heathrow. Gone will be the consensus Davies has tried to create. If he has nailed his colours to the Heathrow mask, he will be regarded as firmly in the Heathrow camp as London First, Ksawi Kwarteng or Back Heathrow. There will be nothing more to say to him…except ‘no’.
Heathrow Airport is only too aware that they are taking on a campaign with a successful track record. Just a few years ago a diverse coalition of local residents, politicians, local authorities, environmental groups and direct action activists were instrumental in stopping a third runway: http://www.hacan.org.uk/resources/reports/how.the.heathrow.campaign.was.won.pdf
That coalition is merely in abeyance and is confident that it can see off expansion a second time round. Some of the businesses backing a third runway put that victory down to luck but Heathrow Airport know that it is a force to be reckoned with because of the support, tacit or active, that it has amongst residents in the most overflown city in the world. It is a key why reason Heathrow Airport has put so much time and end effort into noise mitigation measures.
Davies is backing the most politically undeliverable of all the options. He must be aware that opposition ranges from the Mayor of London to Plane Stupid; from Greenpeace to the London Assembly; from cabinet ministers to local councillors; from residents to trade unionist and environmentalists. He’s paved the way for what one journalist called ‘the biggest environmental battle in Europe’
But, by coming out so clearly for Heathrow, Davies has also almost certainly forced politicians and political parties to reveal their hand before the 2015 General Election (even though his final report is not due to be published until two months after the election). He has made Heathrow an election issue.
My hunch is that Davies’s early support for Heathrow expansion has effectively killed it. He has put the issue firmly into the political arena where the supporters of expansion face a struggle they can probably never win.