Interview: Alistair McDermid, Gatwick’s commission director on why Davies is wrong

The Davies aviation commission recommendation for expansion at Heathrow ignores critical environmental and economic arguments, explains the man driving the campaign to persuade Government to back expansion at Gatwick.

As the government prepares to make its difficult and hugely controversial decision over where to expand airport runway capacity in the South East of the UK, Infrastructure Intelligence hears why government should look beyond the recommendation of the Davies aviation commission and back expansion at Gatwick.

Interview by Antony Oliver

You say government should ignore the Davies Commission recommendation and back Gatwick development. Why is Davies wrong?

This is a debate about what things you attach most importance to and my reading of the commission’s final report is that they have attached no importance to environmental issues. And those issues that they have attached importance to, like the economic benefits, when you look into the analysis, the conclusions are not borne out by their own facts. If you look at the the volume of UK traffic, it is the same between Heathrow and Gatwick, the range of destinations served it’s the same, and the economic benefits are to all intents and purposes the same.

Having spent two years with some great minds on the case, how could Davies have got it so wrong?

I don’t know the answer to that. We are not saying that this is a stitch up from the start – we just simply don’t know what is going on behind the scenes. All we know is that the commission has attached importance to things where the evidence base shows [Heathrow and Gatwick’s cases] to be the same and no importance to the things where there is a clear advantage to Gatwick. In our view the government will now have to attach more importance to those things that the commission has attached no importance to.

You say you have a better and cheaper option – why?

It costs less than half the price of the Heathrow option and for airlines the cost is important. It is better across the whole spectrum that government has had to take into account – serving the market, economic benefits, environmental factors – across that, Gatwick is a better policy option. And from the airline perspective the commission’s view is that the future is going to be same as the past except bigger - it is clearly not going to be.

Why do you have a better view of the future that the Davies Commission?

We don’t think that the commission has even tried to look at what the future will look like.

Davies says you presented “a plausible case for expansion and  is well placed to cater for growth in intra-European leisure flying, but is unlikely to provide as much of the type of capacity which is most urgently required”. Why is that not clear?

[They should] read the facts of their own analysis – that’s my point. Traffic volumes, destinations, economic benefits are all the same [for Heathrow and Gatwick].

That said, could David Cameron realistically ignore this recommendation?

They cannot ignore it and we would not want them to. Could they go against it – yes. But would they go against it in one foul swoop - maybe not. Because the government is open to legal challenge in the way that the commission was not, they have to make sure that their decision is robust and evidence based. There will of course be legal challenges either way on this and the so the question is which legal challenges would be successful. I would argue that legal challenges against a Heathrow option are more likely to be successful.

Could we have development at both Heathrow and Gatwick?

The commission’s position is that there is only room to have one and so we argue that on that basis it should be at Gatwick. Could there be a solution where for the foreseeable future you have development at each with neither providing the full capacity - well it’s open to the government to decide.

Could you envision a solution where government does gives both the go ahead?

Never say never. It is open to the government to decide.

Why do we need either? Should we build in, say, the Midlands instead?

We need extra capacity. Why not in the Midlands or elsewhere? Well simply because the critical mass of demand is in the South East. It makes no sense to put the development where there is no demand. Every option has planning difficulties. It is not easy to deliver a runway anywhere. But it is infinitely more difficult to deliver a runway at Heathrow –to the point, in my personal opinion, where it will never happen.

The commission says that there is still point-to-point capacity left in the south east. Does that not undermine that case for development at Gatwick?

That is a tail wagging the dog argument. Transfer passengers today account for about 14% of the total and on the commission’s numbers that will drop to 10% or less. Surely your primary objective should be to make a decision based on 90% of the market. Logically they should conclude that we both serve the market but the environmental impacts are much less severe at Gatwick and we could provide our capacity five years earlier.

The world is watching. Does this constant debate risk no one stepping up?

I think there is a good chance that they will step up and make a decision. The reason we haven’t had a decision is that Heathrow is just too difficult.

The Tories have committed to reading the report – could it still stay in the too difficult basket.

I think the most likely outcome is that government will make a decision but there is a chance that the government will choose, for good reasons, to play it longer. But even if the decision is in favour of Heathrow it doesn’t mean that it is going to happen because the obstacles in the way still remain.

Does it matter who wins the Mayoral election in May?

Not greatly – they are all against Heathrow. But there is something odd about a government forcing on Londoners something that Londoners don’t want. But they have still got to get through the planning process and tackle issues such as air quality, pollution and surface access - these are all real world issues.

The recent VW emissions scandal has raised the issue of air quality – does it impact your case? 

Over time it will prove Davies was wrong to say that air quality is not a major obstacle to delivery at Heathrow. It is yet another reason that government should choose Gatwick. What does make a difference is whether additional emissions in the Heathrow area from runway 3 would make the area non-compliant for longer. 

When do you expect a decision?

We take the government’s statements at face value and they have said that there will be a decision at the end of this year and we look forward to that decision. I think the most likely thing is that they will make a decision. But it is possible that they may choose to play it longer. 

So would a Gatwick decision actually provide extra capacity slower because of the inevitable planning and legal disputes that would follow?

No. Not at all. We expect construction to start within five years of getting permission.

So when do you think a Gatwick second runway could be open? 

2025 is the shortest time but it could be a year or two after that. But even if a third runway at Heathrow is deliverable it is not deliverable before about 2030. And if it is later it could be five or six years not one or two years. So there is still a five year or more difference between the two. That should be important to policy makers.

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