Why Gatwick expansion should get everyone's support

As the 'Boris island' idea sinks, the Gatwick alternative is practical and cheap, says MT editor Matthew Gwyther.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 04 Mar 2015

In London the prevailing wind is coming from the East this morning. This means that many thousands of the capital’s inhabitants were, unusually, not woken by the first British Airways A380 from Hong Kong rumbling over their heads, through the night sky at 4.30 AM.

Up in his Islington eyrie Boris Johnson wasn’t woken, either although he’s fuming today anyway. Howard Davies, of this parish, has put the final bits of cannon fire into the tail of Boris Island and the idea has plunged into the Thames estuary to sink without trace.
 
But the mayor is still stubbornly refusing to accept that plans for a new Thames hub are dead. 'In my view, it is a very temporary setback. No more than the channel tunnel was dead a hundred years ago when it was first projected,' he said on LBC. Any decision to expand Heathrow 'is going to compound an error of the 1950s and 1960s' and would not be a long-term solution. 'People need to man up and come out with what they are proposing as the solution,' he said.
 
All of this, of course, is true. Nobody in their right mind if starting to build London’s airports from scratch would put it at Heathrow. It is in the wrong place.
 
Any future or government can take or leave Davies’ advice, whatever it turns out to be. But the extent of the fight that will ensue if any politician has the guts to recommend Heathrow’s expansion will make the battle of Stalingrad look like a cucumber sandwich picnic.

The legal aggro could stretch for years and then the actual construction - which may well involve shifting the M25 - will have droves of dreadlocked Swampies locked onto JCBs and what few trees still thrive between Heathrow’s northern runway on the M4.  Zac Goldsmith will be jolly baity.  And all this while planes take off or land every 25 seconds.
 
Davies is not a politician requiring re-election and neither is he a man prone to flights of fancy.  Even before his training at McKinsey his style was cooly analytic. With the current state of the public finances in UK plc, the likelihood of Howard earnestly endorsing a project with a bill of anything between £70-100 billion was unlikely.
 
Something has to be done. For it to take 40 mins or more circling in a stack, burning fossil fuel over the London suburbs waiting to land at Heathrow is bad enough. But you can wait 40 more minutes after ‘pushback’ to get into the air in the first place. 

If you try to escape to City airport - that once secret haven of delicious efficiency – you find to your dismay that it has been discovered by the great unwashed and it’s now crawling with kid’s buggies and travelling amateurs who don’t know that their belt will set off a metal detector.
 
In a more generous mood I’ve written in favour of Heathrow’s expansion. I’m not sure what I was on at the time. Maybe the facts haven’t changed but I have changed my mind. Heathrow expansion is out. I want my kip.
 
So that leaves us with Gatwick and the world of realpolitik. The Gatwick proposal is practical, cheap at £9 billion and affects the smallest number of voters. (Although down there in Sussex they are all Tory with a UKIP bent.)
 
There is room and the current Mickey Mouse third rail service into Victoria by the hapless Southern Rail could be upgraded to overhead high speed lines. There are free platforms at Waterloo still unused since the Eurostar left. 

Gatwick is regarded slightly snootily by many business travellers and those who love connected hubs. But the new 787 is good at the growing point to point market.
 
It’s a slightly shabby compromise but something has to be done and done fast if our economy is not to suffer. Boris Island can wait a couple of decades. The crested grebes plashing through the reeds on the Medway can breathe easy for now.

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