The West London Question

It is a generally accepted fact within the government and opposition that airport capacity in the south east needs to be expanded. Failure to do so now will result in our existing capacity being stretched to breaking point and our economic competitiveness in the global market falling.

The question on everybody’s lips, though, is how? Every option being taken seriously is not short of controversy – whether it be expanding Heathrow with the dreaded third runway, or one of a number of options being explored in the Thames Estuary.

The government has commissioned Sir Howard Davies to look into all the options and report back. The trouble is, such a report will likely not come until after the next general election in 2015, delaying the need to make a difficult decision, but also delaying the inevitable expansion necessary to ensure Britain remains economically viable on the global stage.

Of course the ultimately accepted option needs to have been carefully considered and must be right for Britain – and there are many good and bad attributes attached to each option currently in the public sphere.

The most difficult position, though, is not held by the Prime Minister or the new Transport Secretary, nor is it held by Sir Howard. Each may face a backlash from those who are affected by the outcome, but, crucially, not from their own constituents.

It is those West London MPs – people such as Justine Greening, relieved of her Transport brief at the beginning of this week – who must either sell the final option to their constituents successfully, resign from government, or potentially face a kicking in the polls.

They face a difficult electorate. People living in and around Heathrow do not want to see a third runway increasing aircraft traffic and, crucially, noise on their doorstep. They would prefer any such necessary expansion to occur elsewhere.

However, whatever alternative solution is chosen must not result in the closure of Heathrow, which many (including a hub airport in the Thames Estuary) inevitably would. Such an outcome would be disastrous for the West London economy, not only killing the direct trade and jobs at Heathrow itself, but also the surrounding supply chain. The effect would be to create a ghost town unseen in Britain before.

It is, for our West London MPs, a seemingly impossible contradiction, Catch 22, and one which will be painfully, agonisingly drawn-out until after May 2015. I do not envy Patrick McLoughlin (or whoever holds the Transport brief when Sir Howard reports) for what lays ahead.

The task of selling the result of Sir Howard’s report, even to some of his own MPs and members, will be difficult.