Tuesday, 13 May 2014

London Heathrow's Future - The Crossroads for the West London Economy

Yesterday I attended an important seminar organised by Place West London at the Heathrow Academy at London's Heathrow Airport. The focus of the meeting was what kind of future might Heathrow have as the UK's leading international hub airport and what might be the consequences for West London of the two most obvious scenarios - government support for the construction of a third runway (or the extension of one of the existing two runways) and the closure of the airport if a new one is to be constructed in the Thames estuary east of London.

What struck me most forcibly about the debate at the event was the extent to which, for the first time in my memory, people and agencies in the area affected were really beginning to examine the potential consequences for the west London area and the wider Thames valley area of the closure of Heathrow. 

I spend a large amount of my time helping places think through their future offer and experience and its usually a very positive process - helping them to envisage an improved future place and figuring out the pathway to get there and make a reality of their vision. And although a number of the speakers referred to potential options for reusing the space vacated by the airport if it should have to close, including a major slug of new housing and an education cluster, what was clear to me was the potentially devastating blighting effect on the area around the airport and further west in the Thames valley that would be created by years of running down the airport until a new estuary hub airport was completed (potentially prolonged by extensive consultation and public enquiry), the demolition of existing buildings and the new building that might take place on the site - potentially a period of up to 30 years. 

And the blight would not be confined to the built environment - it would significantly affect the economy of West London and the eastern end of the Thames Valley and potentially involve a significant movement of businesses, of population and significant levels of unemployment, especially among lower skilled workers currently employed at the airport who might not be able to, or wish to, move to work on the eastern perimeter of greater London at the estuary airport.

What was clear is that in considering their options for a third (or extended) runway at Heathrow or a second at Gatwick that the Davies commission set up by the prime minister to assess them, will have to give significant consideration to the economic, social and environmental consequences of both the impact of a new runway and of the closure of Heathrow if the estuary option is chosen.

While there was a sense of optimism from a couple of the speakers that the west London area might benefit from a significant increase in new housing and further and higher education provision on the site of Heathrow if was to close, my sense was that these benefits would be far outweighed by the negative and long term effects of closure.

In comparison, approval for the construction of a third runway at Heathrow would generate a significant level of economic benefits to the west London economy both through its construction and that of associated infrastructure, through the increased scale of operations and through jobs being created in west London and at the eastern end of the Thames valley. And a third runway would confirm Heathrow as the principal gateway to the UK and as a pre-eminent gateway to Europe, with potential economic benefits to the wider UK economy through parallel infrastructure improvements to connect the airport to Crossrail and High Speed rail connections to the UK midlands and north. 

One other thing was clear to me by the end of the afternoon and that is that when the Davies Commission delivers its recommendations to central government in 2015 then whatever government is in power needs to be decisive about its response - it chooses one option over the alternatives and agrees to implement it. What would be unfortunate is if that government procrastinates and plays for more time before biting the bullet of a hard choice. There is already some evidence that the uncertainty over Heathrow's future is reducing the attractiveness of the west London corridor to inward investors and some airlines are clearly reconsidering their operations at the airport.

And, if the decision is to opt for the estuary airport option, then a major effort will need to be made by central government to work long term (maybe up to 30 years) with Hillingdon, Hounslow and Ealing, and authorities bordering them, to fund and plan the recovery of the area on a comprehensive basis of redevelopment - one that has a major economic development driver at its heart that will generate employment and wealth as opposed to a new suburb and education centre; in other words new place-making on a grand and significant scale.