By Rob Gray
September is always a time of intense political activity, as the main political parties meet for their annual conferences. This year’s conferences are special because it will be the final major meeting of politicians and party activists before the general election; and the decision of which airport to expand.
With the Airports Commission’s process ongoing, senior politicians have been keen not to pre-empt its findings but that has not prevented them from dropping plenty of hints as to where they stand.
In his conference speech last week the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls told delegates “whatever the outcome of the Howard Davies review into airport capacity, we must resolve to finally make a decision on airport capacity in London and the South…No more kicking into the long-grass, but taking the right decisions for Britain's long-term future."
This week the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said, “We will…decide where to put a runway….Decide or decline. That is the choice.”
These encouraging hints that both Labour and the Conservatives would be willing to make a firm decision on Heathrow’s future are in part down to supporters of Back Heathrow. Just four years ago Heathrow expansion was completely off limits because a vocal minority had shouted louder than everyone else and politicians bought the myth.
Now, the idea that Heathrow could grow is not just back in consideration, it’s on the shortlist. The difference between then and now is local people speaking out to support Heathrow.
We have now have more than 40,000 individual supporters making us one of the fastest growing campaigns in the country. We are reflecting wider opinion in the local area with polling in nine out of ten parliamentary constituencies surrounding Heathrow showing majority support for expansion. The exception is Zac Goldsmith's Richmond seat, home to huge numbers of frequent flyers.
Journalists, politicians and the industry are waking up to the fact that most local people want Heathrow to grow because they value the jobs and security that the major engine of growth in west London gives to the community. Far from the anti-aviation protestor’s view that the battle was 'big business' versus 'residents', it is now becoming abundantly clear that businesses, both big and small, are united with residents in backing Heathrow. Together, we have made this happen.
The hints in those speeches from senior politicians have shown us how far we have come, but we should not forget how far there is still to go. The Airports Commission has said that the UK needs one new runway straightaway, and there is still a chance that Gatwick will be chosen as the location instead of Heathrow. Gatwick is a great point-to-point regional airport in Sussex but we don't think its expansion alone is the solution to this particular problem. It would not solve the blockage in the system: a lack of capacity at the UK’s world-class hub airport. That said, any growth must come with clear commitments for a cleaner, quieter Heathrow.
In their conference speeches, both David Cameron and Ed Miliband made reference to people they had met who told them how they could improve the country. I know that if they came to your area, you’d speak up for your airport and your future, and tell them that hints simply aren’t good enough.
The future of Heathrow and local communities are inextricably linked. Heathrow has promised 50,000 new local jobs and 10,000 apprenticeships if it is allowed to expand; each one supporting a household and spending cash in our local area in shops, restaurants and local businesses. If Heathrow grows and flourishes, so too will our local economy and everyone will be better off as a result.
Through the Back Heathrow campaign, we have achieved a great deal together in a short space of time. Only with your support will we be able to finish our journey by taking a golden opportunity for local communities and the UK.