Davies commission

Justine Greening would have approved

Justine Greening would have nodded in approval when, last Friday, Sir Howard Davies explained the remit of the Airports Commission the Government has asked him to head up.  The former transport secretary, who was moved from her post in the September reshuffle because of her principled and implacable opposition to Heathrow expansion, would have warmed to Davies’s explanation that he wanted the findings of the Commission to be based on evidence-based submissions.  Earlier this year she memorably dismissed the aviation industry’s failure to back up their sound-bites with sound arguments as a ‘pub-style debate’:


Greening, though, would have been uncomfortable with the fact – as I am – that the expansion of Heathrow is one of the options Davies and his fellow commissioners are being asked to assess.  But I came away from Friday’s launch of the Commission a much happier person than when I arrived.  Davies made it clear that his Commission will be doing a serious piece of work; that they will not simply be recommending where expansion should take place.

I wrote in my blog on 3rd September

To propose a new airport or runway without first analysing demand is like Tescos building a superstore without checking whether it’s required.  It runs counter to the basic laws of business. Yet that is the approach being urged on the Government.  In recent weeks the cheer-leaders for the different airports have been taking to the airwaves: Birmingham, Boris Island, Stansted, Gatwick, Heathrow, even Manston in the remoter regions of Kent.  Stories of shiny new airports and guessing games about which one will be chosen by the government are great copy for the press.  It is like an ‘X Factor of the Air’.  You almost expect Simon Cowell should be given the casting vote.  But it’s very bad economics.

It’s clear that will not happen.  The Commission will start by assessing future demand – in my view, an essential first step.  Davies also made it clear that any proposals they recommend will need to be consistent with the Government’s climate change targets, and that they will take full account of noise and other more local environmental considerations.

It is less clear how much work will be done on the extent demand could be managed through fiscal measures, such as ending the tax-free fuel the aviation industry enjoys, though consideration will be given to the potential of high-speed rail and video-conference to cut demand.

At the end of 2013 the Commission will be required to publish an interim report which Davies said will set out some short-term proposals but will also flag up “plausible” options that will be worked up in some detail for the final report due out in Summer 2015, two months after the General Election.

I suspect the final report will recommend expansion at some airports.  I know that any mention of expansion at Heathrow – be it a third runway or mixed-mode (more planes on the existing runways) – will generate huge opposition and will once again galvanise campaigners into action.  The same would happen at other airports.  But the Davies Commission will have done a job: it will have dragged the debate out of the pub. And that’s a much sounder basis on which to plan future policy. 

  •   The full remit of the Commission, plus the list of commissioners, can be found at http://bit.ly/RywwEz

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