by John Stewart
Boris once rang me up. It was a bit incongruous really. There was I standing on the deserted platform of Isleworth rail station in West London, with the Mayor of London on my mobile! He was congratulating me on my work in campaigning against a third runway and urging me to stand firm.
I am certain Boris doesn’t like the third runway. He’s probably not too keen on a second runway at Gatwick either. And he opposed the last expansion plans at London City Airport. His dream remains Boris Island, the off-shore Estuary Airport, or something similar: a big new airport – away from a populated area – that can compete on the world stage.
There will be intense pressure from all sides on Boris, now that he is Prime Minister, over the third runway. Which way will he jump?
I don’t think we will know the answer to that for some time. Brexit is his priority. His current cabinet is there to deliver Brexit. It includes strong supporters of a third runway like transport secretary Grant Schapps as well as committed opponents like environment secretary Theresa Villiers.
Boris has been very careful to keep his options open. Last week in Parliament he gave an interesting answer to the Green MP Caroline Lucas when she asked about 3rd runway: “The bulldozers are some way off but I’m following with lively interest the court cases because I share her concerns about air quality and about pollution.” No commitment to stop it or build it.
I suspect, though, never before have so many key opponents of a third runway had the ear of a Prime Minister:
Sir Edward Lister, his chief of staff, for 19 years the leader of Wandsworth Council, a consistent critic of a third runway
Theresa Villiers, his Secretary of State for the Environment, the person who, when shadow Transport Secretary in the late 1990s, played a key role in persuading David Cameron to come out against the third runway
Zac Goldsmith, appointed to Boris’s Government to work on environment and animal welfare issues across two Government departments, DEFRA and Dfid, famously resigned his seat and fought a by-election on the issue of a third runway
Daniel Moylan, Boris’s aviation adviser when he was London Mayor and who is still close to Boris and, as an ardent Bexiteer, is expected to given a role in the Brexit negotiations
Ray Puddifoot, the long-time leader of Hillingdon Council, the borough which includes Boris’s own Uxbridge constituency, is an implacable opponent of a third runway. Hillingdon has put a huge amount of money into fighting it: in supporting residents and the wider opposition movements and in helping to fund legal challenges. Indeed, it is thought that Puddifoot’s strategy has been to delay the new runway long enough in the hope Boris would one day become Prime Minister.
If Boris was minded to drop a third runway when would be do it? My view is that he is likely to let the current consultation and probably next year’s Public Inquiry run their course. In early 2021 the Government will need to make the final decision on the third runway. This would be Boris’s opportunity to drop it if he was so minded. If he did so before the proposal for the new runway had gone through the formal planning procedures, the Government would almost certainly need to find billions of pounds to compensate Heathrow for the work it has done.
Zac Goldsmith would not stay in a Government which gave a new runway the go-ahead and Ray Puddifoot and others would feel badly let down.
Could Boris sell a no third runway strategy to his cabinet and party? Perhaps only if he offered them the realistic prospect of a world-class airport elsewhere. Business would want the same. Or else this would be seen as the biggest ‘F… Business’ of all time.
Heathrow would be devastated. Although I have spent many years opposing a third runway, I recognise Heathrow has put a lot of time and money into trying to mitigate and manage its impacts in a way few airports in the world have ever done.
But perhaps Heathrow and its business backers will persuade Boris to overcome his own instincts and the beliefs of some of his closest colleagues and permit the expansion. Could Boris be tempted by the Heathrow Hub proposal to double the length of the existing northern runway rather than build a new one?
What we do know is that the third runway is currently in that strangest of places: in planning terms it is closer than ever before; but a Prime Minister is in power who threatens it more than any of his predecessors.
John Stewart chairs HACAN which gives a voice to residents under the Heathrow flight paths