THE BLOG

Choose Growth, Not Groundhog Day

08/01/2016 08:34 GMT | Updated 07/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Some commentators have billed 2016 as the year for difficult decisions for the UK. Airport expansion has been cited as chief amongst the big, thorny issues we face. Step back for a minute, however, and the solution to this particular question is actually very simple.

If we choose growth at Gatwick over inertia at Heathrow, 2016 can be the year that Britain finally solves one of its longest running policy challenges.

There have always been two sides to balance in this debate - the economy and the environment.

However much of the debate, the focus was almost exclusively on the former with little attention paid to the latter. That has all changed. Those who dismiss the Government's announcement in December as being about just 'politics' misunderstand the importance of the environment to aviation and misrepresent how our democracy works.

All major infrastructure projects represent a trade-off between benefits and impacts. And it has to be for politicians to decide where the right balance lies - and, crucially, take forward an option that is legal. It is pointless to give the green light to a project if it cannot be delivered because the environmental hurdles are too high and their effects on people too great.

The Treasury economic analysis in the Airports Commission's Report shows that the economic benefits of expansion at Heathrow or Gatwick are largely the same. Both airports have business support but what unites all business is the need to deliver a new runway. Clearly, a runway that cannot be delivered offers no economic benefit at all.

That is why the Government is right to say they need to look in more detail at the impacts of noise and air quality. Heathrow adversely affects more people with noise than all the other major airports in Europe combined. Air quality around the airport is already at illegal levels because of road traffic.

It defies common sense to think that millions more car journeys on a 16 lane M25 with a new runway extending over it will actually improve the situation. It would obviously make it worse and the vain pursuit of illegal expansion would prove fruitless once again.

As Einstein said it is the definition of insanity to do the same thing over and over again and to expect a different result. Even the airport's most ardent supporters must recognise that if Heathrow was going to expand it would have gone ahead by now. Heathrow has been tried and failed repeatedly; it's not going to happen and it is time for a new solution.

We recognise that expansion at Gatwick would adversely impact more people by noise than are presently affected but, in both cases, the numbers are a fraction of those at Heathrow. Heathrow would affect near 700,000 people. At Gatwick, that number is 36,000 and we have created

Europe's most innovative noise mitigation scheme to help residents deal with noise.

Most importantly Gatwick has never breached legal air quality limits and would not do so even with a second runway. Moreover, as a lower cost, more efficient proposition, expansion at Gatwick would enhance competition and be in line with the current trends in aviation, the rise of lower cost travel, and the growth of point-to-point flights. There is a reason why the other major UK airports do not want Heathrow to expand - they want to look to a future where they can attract more direct flights themselves rather than turning the clock back to the old monopoly in West London.

So this year should herald a change. It should mark the moment Britain recognises that if we want aviation to grow environmental concerns cannot be wished away. Expansion cannot come at the cost of poorer public health as air quality deteriorates further. It cannot mean subjecting hundreds of thousands more people to the adverse impacts of noise. What it can be is the year Britain takes a global leadership position as a modern 21st Century democracy and in choosing Gatwick shows that we can make these big infrastructure decisions without having to choose between the economy and the environment.

As we enter 2016, it is clear that the centre of gravity of the airport expansion debate has changed. The momentum is now with Gatwick as people increasingly recognise it is the only deliverable option for the country.

The choice is clear. Groundhog Day with illegal expansion at Heathrow and Britain losing out again or guaranteed growth at Gatwick as we choose to be the builders and see Britain reaping the benefits. The answer is obvious.

Stewart Wingate is the CEO of Gatwick Airport