Commons Touch - Britain's Airport Expansion

It may seem as though the debate over where London’s next airport runway should be does not have much immediate relevance for businesses in Kent, but a presentation by Heathrow at the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce in Ashford revealed that businesses based here have strong views.

The current state of play on the debate is that a Government consultation will continue for the next month, looking particularly at the environmental issues. The plan is for a Parliamentary debate in the summer, with a vote which will finally decide whether the new runway should go at Heathrow or Gatwick. Since this argument has been around for more than twenty years, I think is high time that we resolved it.

One of the views put very strongly at the meeting was that the imminence of Brexit made the need for a quick decision even more pressing. Both exporters and importers were united in the view that Britain had to demonstrate that it was open to business with the whole world, and that the pre-eminence of Heathrow in the long-haul high-value freight market made it the natural choice.

Heathrow claim that a new runway will mean doubling the existing cargo capacity, and will have overall economic benefit of £137 billion. The new runway would also allow another 140 long-haul routes to be introduced. The most arcane fact I learned was that 35,000 tonnes of salmon are exported through Heathrow every year. Clearly fresh food is a product that depends on speedy delivery, but that does seem like a lot of salmon.

The key demand from Kent is for better and quicker connectivity. The introduction of Crossrail (the Elizabeth Line as it will be known when it opens at the end of this year) should make a difference for passengers, but as the business need is more about freight this will pose questions for the road network. We all know that the M25 can just about cope at the best of times, and additional traffic might tip it over the edge.

I have always thought that Heathrow was the obvious option for the next runway, since it is already Britain’s biggest hub, and has better links with regional airports than any other. But this does not mean that there are no remaining issues to be solved, and the urgency of addressing them over the next few months is paramount.