David Cameron might henceforth be known as 'dithering Dave' as the backlash over the government’s delayed Heathrow decision continues to grow. Unsurprisingly, British business hasn’t taken kindly to the procrastination – after all, Howard Davies was tasked with finding the right solution to expansion and duly did so. But with the government still dragging its heels, some of Britain’s biggest firms have teamed up to voice their discontent.
More than 50 business leaders and lobbyists, from WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell to the CEO of Associated British Foods, have signed an open letter to Cameron, urging him to commit to actually delivering a ‘clear and final’ decision on expanding Heathrow ‘no later’ than May. (As a side note, if the delay did go on until next summer that would be handy timing for Zac Goldsmith since he threatened resignation should the expansion go ahead. The election for the next London mayor – for which Goldsmith is the Conservative candidate – is of course in May. Helpful.)
Former Conservative treasurer Michael Spencer also added his name to the letter, which warns that each delay sends a ‘disastrous message’ to global investors. It suggested the government needs to ‘get a grip’ on the matter of aviation expansion – and fast. ‘We urge the government to get a grip… by committing to announce a clear and final decision by no later than the end of May 2016.’
Cameron said he now wants to postpone the decision while he waits for the results of an air quality report on the impact of a new runway at Heathrow. Business leaders have pointed to the Airports Commission spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and three years examining evidence – the whole purpose of which was ‘so that a decision, fundamental to our long-term prosperity, could be made without being bogged down by politics’. Only for more blustering and woolliness to take centre stage.
Perhaps sensing a moment of weakness, Gatwick is set to make a further appeal in the New Year by pledging to create extra capacity over four phases between 2021 and 2040 – rather than one large-scale construction project. The aim would be to spread costs and minimise disruption of a new runway.
Throwing more uncertainty into the mix, Sir Nigel Rudd is stepping down as chairman of Heathrow after seven years in charge. Heathrow said that Rudd’s departure was ‘in line with standard board practice’ and the search for a successor was underway.
Announcing the end of his tenure, Rudd warned, ‘I’ve seen first-hand just how much of an economic engine Heathrow is for all parts of our great trading nation. That’s why it’s so important that government lives up to its "open for business" mandate and expands Heathrow.’
He will remain at the company until mid-2016 and despite stepping down as chairman, Rudd suggested he wasn’t going to be disappearing from view anytime soon. ‘We can keep Britain at the heart of the global economy and I will continue to actively make the case for a bigger and better Heathrow,’ he said.
If Cameron was expecting his postponement to be taken without a fight, it looks like he might be in for a shock.