The first astonishing thing about my trip to Crawley Town Hall the other day for the Q & A session with Sir Howard Davies and the Airports Commission on behalf of CAGNE East was the distinct lack of planes in the sky outside the building and consequently, the absence of aircraft noise. I’d never been to central Crawley before. My local town is Tunbridge Wells, a town with surrounding suburbs of roughly equal size and around twenty miles east of Gatwick Airport. During the summer when most people want to go on holiday, we can get one plane per minute by day and up to fifty flights per night. Hence my astonishment: Gatwick’s web is cast wide, not close to home, I thought.
Not that the vast outreach of the big fat spider that is Gatwick Airport was particularly evident from the mix of representatives congregated in the hall who had come, the Chairman hoped, to ask about the ‘Roles and Processes of the Commission’. The invitation only event was organised by West Sussex County Council. They are in favour of a second runway development at Gatwick. To my knowledge and to date there is no such event planned in the remote outback regions of West Kent, which in terms of the two hour proceedings was a place of complete unimportance.
Well – take the contribution from Sue Mullens of Ifield, West Sussex. This lady began her speech sedately: “We enjoy a green and peaceful way of living…” but soon had to swallow back tears; a normal reaction to facing the prospect of having something valuable taken away. In the event of Gatwick’s bid being accepted by Davies, Ifield would be right next to the second runway, in fact so close that residents in her area were recently offered £1000 towards Council Tax bills as compensation. In short, she didn’t think that was enough compensation.
Davies simply pointed out he had heard much the same kind of story from residents who would be effected by expansion of Heathrow. With an easy, although it must be said business-like charm he went on to dismiss most questions which, in the strictly comparative terms that frame the Commission’s enquiry, do not provide a difference between the bids on the table.
What exactly did the Commission understand by the phase ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ and particularly the term sustainability? (Davies spoke briefly of socioeconomic, environment, and transport effects then said ‘we have an integrated approach’ i.e makes little difference.)
What about environment and special habitats? Hospital provision? Definition of a hub? Wider impacts on health services? Schools? Social services?
Both Heathrow and Gatwick locations share all of these issues.
Same with environmental pollution and even climate change. Davies was adamant that continued aviation growth would fit within the UK targets for carbon capping by 2050, citing the conclusions of the Committee on Climate Change. He said it was predicted that the rest of the economy would adequately reduce carbon emissions to compensate for aviation increases, and not least by the decline in regional airport use: a current trend expected to worsen following strategic initiatives towards the flagship London ‘hub’ that is at the heart of the Commission’s remit. Questions raised about a north south divide by councillor Chris Mullens were dissmissed as the inevitable and unavoidable result of the certainty of economics as set out by airlines:
‘The airlines do not believe there is business there’, Davies said. ‘This is a free market, and a free business. The airlines tell us there is no sustainability for regions.’
Maybe I should have been astonished at this comment i.e. ‘free market’? The fact other Countries maintain regional airports? The comment also seemed to contradict his earlier repost to Jeremy Taylor, who asked a question on behalf of the Gatwick Business Diamond. Mr Taylor made the usual assertion that increased connectivity provided by Gatwick airport expansion was essential to growth of the Gatwick Business Diamond, therefore in turn the UK Economy. Mr Davies was quick to respond (and perhaps too quick for decency in the sense of a here’s-something-I -prepared-earlier) that economics was not an exact science, that there was no guarantee of growth and that the Commission was trying to predict growth: ‘We’ve tried to do that, but these things are not as solid as you think”, Sir Howard said.
Sir Howard added that the development had to be “the right kind of connectivity in the right place.” In other words, Economics gives no guarantees and is subject to interpretation. However, no one I know in business is attempting anything longer than a 10 year plan at present. The world remains fragile since 2008…the way Mr Davies was later on so confident in the infallibility of the economic predictions as set out by the Committee on Climate Change on carbon targets twenty five years into the future seemed inexplicable. Yet Sir Howard expressed enough confidence to risk the planet.
All of which in the context of the Q and A session, I have to admit, was possibly the same as saying that where the airports are actually makes no difference- not in terms of regional business in the UK anyway. And this is where the High Weald Aviation Action Group came in some while later thanks to its Chairman, Major Richard Streatfeild, who asked if the Commission would be considering the legal restrictions pertaining to Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB’s) of the High Weald. The High Weald area is perhaps one of the most concentrated AONB regions of the South East and includes the Ashdown Forest, which also happens to be protected under EU Law as an important habitat for wildlife. Its integrity is already being compromised by Gatwick expansion.
‘And will the Commission be taking into account the 250,000 jobs and 7 billion pounds contribution to the UK economy from businesses that rely on the tranquillity of the High Weald region?” Major Streatfeild asked.
Such considerations come under the ‘catalytic effect’ of any expansion. In terms of proximity to London, the High Weald is where many Londoners spend free time. When they come they expect tranquillity, historic buildings, heritage- perhaps in an equal and opposite way that I registered the lack of planes in the town of Crawley so close to the airport before the Q and A started.
Now it’s just my interpretation, but by every standard measure of human emotion I’d say Sir Howard Davies was astonished by what the Major had to say right there and then. He muttered something vague about how he would have to ‘come back to that’, stuttering a little. Just eight minutes later the allotted time for the session came to a close.
Could the effects on tourism and related industries in West Kent and East Sussex really have been so far overlooked? Could it be that hereforeto, no one from our area (or in fact from Surrey and West Sussex) has championed the homegrown ‘Green Emerald Businesses’ that exist here? If anyone reading this could provide an alternate explanation for the second astonishing thing that happened to me on my trip to Crawley do get in touch, but not please to tell me I was mistaken –
I have every doubt in my intellectual abilities already as a woman who spent a rather long time at the session fumbling ineptly with the button of my microphone. My point of view as expressed here is of course subject to me being human, with all the possible failings that entails. Yet I emphatically state Sir Howard Davies was astonished. In other words, all too human last time I looked.