Boris Island is sunk but it may help other airports expand

Politicising the debate. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

The Airports Commission has finally rejected Boris Johnson’s proposal for a new international hub in the Thames estuary, reinforcing the expectation that Heathrow and possibly Gatwick will be given the go-ahead to expand their capacity.

This decision will not surprise many in aviation policy circles. “Boris Island” was never a realistic option. Too many factors went against it: it was the most expensive of the proposals on the table, it raised environmental and wildlife objections, it posed challenges for air traffic control, it garnered little support from either leading carriers or London’s business community – and it faced highly effective rival campaigns from Gatwick and Heathrow.

As the Airports Commission concluded: “We need to focus on solutions which are deliverable, affordable and set the right balance for the future of aviation in the UK.”

Expansion agenda

But it would be wrong to simply dismiss the Mayor of London’s campaign as a failed sideshow, or a wasteful airport folly. Johnson’s very public support for a new international hub has played a significant, if largely unnoticed, political role in getting aviation expansion back on the policy agenda, following the coalition government’s 2010 moratorium on the building of new runways in the south-east of England.

If nothing else, Boris’ passionate rallying calls and continuous drip-feeding of new initiatives, reviews and briefings has kept the issue of capacity resonating throughout Whitehall and the Westminster village. In the early months of the coalition government, his public support for aviation expansion was a lone voice among political leaders across the three major parties. Indeed, his persistent proposals for a new international hub did much to return the policy debate back to issues of airport capacity, the benefits for the UK of an international hub airport, and the international competitiveness and the connectivity of London.

Sidestepping climate change

In his campaign for Boris Island, the mayor of London also depoliticised the impact of aviation on carbon emissions and climate change. The anti-expansion coalition against Labour’s plans for a third runway at Heathrow brought together an alliance of local residents and climate change activists, combining the struggles against aviation with the fight against climate change. Johnson had supported this campaign.

His Thames estuary plan, however, for a new four-runway airport side-stepped the issue of climate change and strained the coalition by offering a divisive NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) solution to the dilemma of aviation expansion. In fact, the alternative of an estuary airport tested the allegiance of local residents to the common platform of “no airport expansion anywhere in the UK” that mobilised local residents from Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick, as well as environmental and climate change activists.

Heathrow paradox

It is this wider political fallout that is a significant element of the Boris island plan. In many respects it was an effective and necessary Trojan horse for supporters of airport expansion.

The appointment of Justine Greening, an opponent of Heathrow expansion, as transport secretary in 2011, appeared to put the issue of airport capacity to bed. And, like road building in the 1990s, aviation’s expansionist post-war regime had been stalled, if not defeated. Boris Island did much to loosen the lack of political support behind this nascent policy reversal.

Now, with the rejection of a Thames estuary airport, Boris Johnson’s proposals have served their purpose for the pro-expansion campaign. Paradoxically, the mayor of London’s efforts to offer an alternative to expansion at Heathrow may have made expansion at the international hub more likely. Almost by default, following the arguments used by the Airports Commission to reject Boris Island, expansion at Heathrow has become a more reasoned response to the issue of airport capacity.

Democratic discussion

In the longer term, the rejection of a Thames estuary airport has done little to build any wider political agreement. Labour attempted to engineer a policy settlement during the consultation for its 2003 Air Transport White Paper. After this backfired, the coalition has retreated to the politics of expertise and technocracy to resolve this thorny issue.

But it remains doubtful whether the Airports Commission can generate an evidence-based consensus in a policy arena riven by competing values and interests, as Johnson’s own strident reaction to the rejection of his proposal demonstrates. Perhaps it’s time to look for new democratic means of resolving complex policy issues like aviation.

In the meantime, we need new ways of productively discussing the issue of airport expansion. This means reducing antagonism between the parties involved, while also enabling the emergence of competing policy coalitions. Only then can we build a genuine political consensus, which can generate a legitimate solution. Otherwise we will continue to be trapped in this cruel policy dilemma for another ten years.