20 June 2018

Heathrow’s third runway: A sorry tale of bungling bureaucrats


When Jock Lowe, the longest serving Concorde pilot, got a group of us together five years ago to form the Heathrow Hub consortium to promote his simple but innovative idea to solve one of the great political and economic conundrums of our time – how to expand Heathrow in the most acceptable way possible – we had no idea that we would be still here, in 2018, battling the bungling transport Establishment.

Next week, the Government intends to have a vote on a third runway for Heathrow, having ignored or misunderstood most of our representations, supported by some of the world’s finest aviation and engineering firms. Unlike Heathrow Airport’s third runway plan, extending the existing northern runway would be cheaper, simpler, quieter, destroy fewer houses, could be done in phases to reduce risk, and would not cause chaos on the M25.

Jock’s proposal is simple. Extend the exiting runway to 6,600m, divide it in two with a 650m safety zone, and aircraft could land at one end and take off at the other.

We have learnt at first hand that the transport establishment – made up of civil servants, a few “gurus” like Lord Adonis and lazy regulators — is not really interested in evidence-based policy making. What they prefer is to restrict investment on incremental, local projects and instead go for massive, expensive complicated ideas like HS2 and a third runway.

It isn’t right to blame all our transport woes on the Secretary of State Chris Grayling, who survived a vote of confidence by 20 votes on Tuesday this week. But the chaos in the new rail timetable, the cost overruns at Network Rail and HS2, and the failure of both the Southern and East Coast Mainline franchises ought to serve as evidence of the lamentable quality of the Department for Transport’s processes and decision making.

In our experience, Mr Grayling’s heart is in the right place. He is passionate about infrastructure. He was attracted by our idea, and asked Heathrow Airport Ltd if they would be prepared to implement it. No, they said. Apparently because their substantially more expensive proposal makes more money for their largely overseas shareholders.

Since then, the Department for Transport has persisted in claiming our scheme offers lower capacity and worse respite. I cannot begin to tell you how depressing this is. On both points, they are totally wrong. The Airports Commission asked us in 2013 to model 700,000 annual movements, which we did. It then became clear that Heathrow Airport was modelling 740,000. Not only is that higher capacity, it resulted in Heathrow Airport’s idea in being given a higher economic benefit by the Commission.

We immediately took steps to optimise our scheme by putting in some new taxiways and stands and submitted new modelling. Again and again we have submitted this to the Department, and again and again they have ignored it. Earlier this month, they published a new consultant’s report still based on the old pre-2015 data and model. This is the sort of cock-up that is typical of the DFT.

Most MPs are frankly even less interested in the detail than the civil servants. Although we have met dozens – including Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet ministers — and nearly all of them have said: “This is a great idea, why is the Government not taking it forward?” Very few have had the courage to actually do anything about it. There are some honourable exceptions, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and George Freeman (both of whom are very open and supportive of new ideas). But the majority fall into the “let’s not rock the plane” or “let’s just get on with it” categories.

Even the Scottish National Party, which can usually be relied upon to challenge the status quo in London, have gone along with the third runway, because they think it will enable more connections from Scottish airports. They are going to be disappointed. Heathrow Airport’s scheme, which incredibly has no detailed public costs breakdown, is likely to be so expensive that passenger fees (already the highest in the world) will double to £40 each, according to IAG (the owner of British Airways).

At that level, most regional flights where the ticket price is around £90 will likely be uneconomic. And even if they are economic, why should Scottish passengers pay over the odds to subsidise a big transport project in the South of England? Why should any of us? The answer is that the SNP apparently can’t be bothered to do the detail either.

Assuming the Government wins the vote next week, then you can expect all manner of legal actions and judicial reviews to take place. We are certainly going to have a go. Our investors, led by a hedge funder called Anthony Clake, feel they were duped into entering a competition which was rigged in Heathrow Airport’s favour all along. We have reported Heathrow Airport Ltd to the Competition and Markets Authority for vetoing our proposal and are preparing for a legal fight over the capacity errors made by the DFT.

The really big issue is that the DFT have made such a mess of things that it is still very probable Heathrow’s third runway won’t get built. Aside from the litigation risk, airlines are on the warpath over the spiralling cost. IAG reckons it could be as high as £30 billion once the taxpayer subsidies are taken into account. Compare that to the £3.9 billion cost of our first phase, would deliver an additional 70,000 movements.

Another point which is bound to cause uproar is housing. One reason Heathrow Airport’s plan is so expensive is it requires the demolition of three villages. About 2,100 Londoners will have to be rehoused. What could possibly go wrong?

We still hope that one day common sense may finally intervene and someone in authority will say: “Hang on, wouldn’t it be simpler if we just extended the existing runway?” Good question, my friends, good question.

George Trefgarne is founder of Boscobel & Partners, a communications firm.