Inside London's Airports Policy: indecision, decision and counter-decision

In a new ICE book, Paul Le Blond provides insight into the history of the development of airports policy. 

Finding a long-term policy for developing London's airports has been a real challenge for politicians, civil servants, planners and engineers, as well as causing uncertainty in local communities. 

It has sometimes seemed as if as soon as a policy is decided, it's overturned, and London's airports have had to struggle along, working at full capacity. 

The history of the search for a long-term strategy provides lessons for those seeking to provide for the sustainable growth of air transport in the UK, and indeed in other countries.

Deliberation in planning

Commercial air transport began around 100 years ago, but it wasn't until after the Second World War that it grew significantly. 

There was then a need to plan London's airports, and the early attempts met with mixed success, with Heathrow and Gatwick established in the immediate post-war period, but Stansted being initially rejected as a third London airport. 

A fresh attempt at an objective decision-making process was made with the Roskill Commission in the late 1960s, but this faltered when the government initially selected a Thames Estuary site which had not been the Commission's majority recommendation, and then cancelled the Maplin project in the mid 1970s when faced with an economic downturn.

The next stage was to consider incremental improvements, with new terminals first at Heathrow and Gatwick, and later at Stansted. This policy was successful for about 20 years in managing the demand and providing sufficient capacity. 

However, by the mid 1990s, it proved difficult to establish a longer-term policy and the next increment of capacity, a fifth terminal at Heathrow, got stuck in a four-year-long public inquiry, partly because of an absence of policy support.

Establishing policy

The New Labour government of 1997-2010 tried to create a long-term, wide-ranging air transport policy but, partly because it was seen to pay insufficient attention to the growing awareness of the environmental effects, both local and global, it didn't survive the General Election of 2010. 

The incoming Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition scrapped plans for new runways but, within two years, set up another commission under Sir Howard Davies to review the whole question.

A way forward?

Davies' final report was published in July 2015 and unanimously recommended a third runway at Heathrow. 

However, the government didn't immediately accept the recommendation but instead conducted more studies, in particular of the environmental effects. 

Then came the EU referendum and another General Election, but the policy was settled by a parliamentary vote of 415 to 119 MPs in support of a National Policy Statement in June 2018. 

Now it is for Heathrow to bring forward the plans for scrutiny and, if approved, for construction of the new runway by the late 2020s.
Paul Le Blond is author of the new ICE book Inside London's Airports PolicyInside London's Airports Policy: Indecision, decision and counter-decision: Indecision, decision and counter-decision, which sets out the history of the development of airports policy.

It begins with some key background and issues which impact airports, then reviews the early history before looking in detail at the period from the mid 1970s to the present day.

The book also considers some non-London examples before seeking to identify lessons worth learning and drawing conclusions.