Heathrow Runway to Test Political Taste for Long-Term Projects

A Brief History of Heathrow Airport

Enlarging London Heathrow airport will challenge lawmakers to overcome political interests for the sake of long-term economic strategy. If other transport projects are any guide, it’s a test they’ll struggle to pass.

Developing the airport into a 135 million-passenger superhub has joined construction of a $75 billion high-speed rail route as a trial of Britain’s infrastructure ambitions. The Davies state commission said Wednesday the Heathrow plan is superior to a less controversial one to expand London Gatwick.

“The real test is whether any political will exists to turn his recommendation into reality,” Willie Walsh, chief executive officer at British Airways parent IAG SA, said of the report. “Without political vision and leadership, it will end up on the shelf gathering dust like its predecessors.”

The body that selected Heathrow as the best option for a new runway was set up by Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012. With the verdict in, passing the legislation needed to build the 18 billion-pound ($28 billion) landing strip will require Cameron to overcome both Conservative colleagues implacably opposed to the plan and a political past that once saw the premier himself in the anti-Heathrow vanguard.

‘No Ifs, No Buts’

“This is not going to be a smooth ride through parliament,” Adam Afriyie, who represents Windsor for Cameron’s Conservatives in the House of Commons, said on June 17. “It’s very easy to get bleary eyed about it being in our national interest, let’s not forget that Heathrow airport is a private company and it’s in their interests.”

When Cameron was leading the opposition to former PM Gordon Brown, he rejected a third Heathrow runway in what opponents said was a move aimed at winning seats in west London -- where voters would suffer more noise and air pollution from extra flights -- and signaling the modernization of the Tories as no longer wedded solely to the interests of big business.

Cameron accused Brown of “pig-headedly pursuing” growth at Heathrow and made a speech promising to block its expansion “no ifs, no buts.”

The Tory leader has since refined his position, saying the promise applied only for the length of a parliament. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said after the report was published that Britain faces “a once in a generation opportunity to answer a vital question,” and Cameron said a decision will come this year.

Flexing Muscle

Yet some of the prime minister’s own lawmakers continue their opposition, repeatedly reminding him of his promises. Zac Goldsmith, who is running to be Tory candidate for London mayor and represents Richmond Park under the Heathrow flight-path, has said he’ll resign if the government backs a third runway.

“This is about us flexing our muscles and saying no government will be able to deliver if they want to give a green light to Heathrow expansion,” Goldsmith said, predicting “an army of volunteers” opposing the move.

While much of the funding to build the landing-strip itself will be private or from increased fees, government support is essential to gain planning approval and develop the rail and road networks needed to support growth at the terminal.

“At the end of the day, the politicians will do what they want, never mind what we say,” said Bill Colley, owner of the Richmond Bridge Boathouse and a long-time resident of the area. “Though chances are I won’t see a new runway in my lifetime.”

Rail Wrangle

Hostility to Heathrow parallels opposition to the High Speed 2 rail line that the government says would help bind the stuttering economy of northern England more closely to high-growth London, and which would also link to the airport.

Conservative lawmakers whose districts would be affected by HS2 voiced their opposition to the line as they sought re-election in May. Votes on the planned line in parliament have so far passed easily, though Cameron’s working majority of 16 could come under threat if both Labour and the Scottish National Party decide to oppose the line.

The airport’s growth plans have been languishing for decades, bedeviled by the debate over noise and emissions. It’s symptomatic of the powerful local opposition facing other mega-projects such as a tidal barrage in south Wales -- and a far cry from the can-do attitude of Victorian England, when mammoth construction plans won approval with little consideration for objections.

While U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and other senior Conservatives are known to back Heathrow, as well as key Labour figures, optimism about the Heathrow enlargement may be premature, given the vehemence of opposition from some London lawmakers. Those include Mayor Boris Johnson, a frontrunner to take over as prime minister when Cameron steps down before the next election.

“There’s no city in the western world that would dream of doing something as insane as London is considering,” Johnson said before the decision, adding afterwards that the findings should be “filed vertically” in other words: trashed.

In the end, Cameron will need to decide whether to heed the advice of former Chancellor Ken Clarke, and relegate London’s concerns below those of the wider U.K.

“This government was elected in order to deliver a modern competitive economy for future generations,” Clarke said. “Decisions on major infrastructure projects should be taken on a judgment of the national interest of the country as a whole.”

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