With big battles looming for David Cameron (not least over Europe), fears rose this week that airport expansion could be kicked into the long grass, yet again.
Boris Johnson said Sir Howard Davies’ detailed report would be “vertically filed” and briefings emanating from Number 10 that the report was “not legally binding” and “not definitive” have done little to quell concerns.
Although George Osborne is understood to favour Heathrow expansion, David Cameron is somewhat compromised by his previous “no ifs, no buts” opposition to it. The PM is facing a cabinet split over the issue, not to mention the fervent opposition from campaigners, who are already threatening legal action.
All of this makes the decision politically toxic… but this has always been the case. There is no perfect solution to this problem - there are arguments for and against, which can be weighed, endlessly. This is why we have been waiting for more than 50 years for a decision, but it can’t be put off any longer: airport expansion is essential if the UK is to retain its global competitiveness.
Davies’ commission has now assessed the evidence and said that a third runway at Heathrow is the best option - “our strongly unanimous” choice, as he put it - and a chorus of big names from across property and the wider business world have backed his recommendation and called for decisive action from ministers.
The prime minister said this week the government would consider the 344-page report and respond before the end of the year, stressing that hasty action could raise the threat of judicial review.
Will the government step up to the plate? Or will there be more prevarication? Both Cameron and Osborne are fond of telling us that they are capable of making tough decisions that are in the national interest. Well, this is one of those decisions, as the interminable holding pattern over Heathrow expansion cannot continue. As one senior property figure put it this week: “It’s simply time someone had the balls to make the decision.”
Osborne could ease some of these worries when he delivers his summer Budget next week. As well as setting out where the government plans for £12bn in welfare cuts, Osborne has said the Budget will focus on ways to tackle the UK’s productivity problem, including long-term deficiencies in transport and the planning system… no better time to reaffirm his commitment to airport expansion then.
Osborne is expected to use the Budget to press quickly ahead with the Tory’s manifesto pledges, but as he begins the search for £30bn in savings there are fears property could be seen as an easy target for tax increases. The chancellor needs to tread carefully. There is a case to be made for reviewing council tax, certainly, but right now property needs stability and certainty, not more upheaval.