Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Why we must start planning now for the Gatwick second runway decision

Over the weekend I was preparing my verbal submission to the Airports’ Commission Public Session which I gave today.

In 1979 an agreement was made between West Sussex County Council as the Planning Authority and BAA, the then owners of the airport, that there would be no second runway at Gatwick until 2019.

It was an agreement that was binding on BAA’s successors, although they could at any time have sought to terminate it. But it has relied on goodwill – a principle which has worked well over the years.

A similar forty year agreement probably would not happen today. Between then and now there has been considerable social and economic movement, which is to be welcomed.

The whole world has opened up to business and the movement of people and resources. So a decision on airport expansion, because of its considerable significance nationally, is no longer in the hands of local people and politicians but very much with the Government of the day and will only be made after extensive public consultation.

Sometime in 2015 the Airports Commission will make a recommendation about whether expansion will be at Heathrow or Gatwick for increasing airport capacity in the future. 

If the recommendation is for expansion at Gatwick and the Government chooses to accept the recommendations, the ramifications for West Sussex and the other communities close to the airport would be huge.

My position is that I am firmly of the view that we have to start planning now for whatever decision is made. 

If there is to be a second runway at Gatwick Airport then we need to consider how best to mitigate the effects of these on local communities and the environment whilst considering how best to provide the infrastructure and services that are needed for more jobs, new business opportunities, homes, as well as the increase in traffic and transport.

If the Government opts for expansion at Heathrow Airport this would also be considerable news for the county.  We would have to consider how we optimise the benefits of Gatwick Airport in its current configuration. There will still be growth but it will be very different and the impact and supporting infrastructure will need to be planned differently but no less carefully.

Whichever way the decision goes we do need as much time as possible, to plan, work with a range of key partners, to lobby, inform and prepare which is why I think it is vital for the good of the residents of West Sussex and the county’ s economic and environmental needs that we start now and do not wait for a decision.

To that end we are in discussions with our District and Borough Councils who too have a vital part to play.

Whether there is a new runway at Gatwick or not we all need to work on the economic implications for our area.

I have had lots of letters from people questioning the decision to ask the Council to support in principle the idea of an expanded Gatwick Airport including a second runway.  I fully understand and accept people’s anxiety about what a second runway in the county might mean in terms of increased flights, housing, jobs, services and the environment. The action we took was to trigger that very debate – to recognise that a big decision was going to be made – not one in our control but one we were able to influence.

“Support in principle” means showing a keen interest in the future of the county, its economy and employment.  It does not mean blanket support regardless of the wider effects.  Taking the decision to support Gatwick Airport Limited in principle in its attempts to bring a second runway to the Airport has allowed us to really hold Gatwick to account as a critical friend on the issues that matter to our residents and people care about. It has opened doors and shown that we are not wedded to any particular cause – other than the interests or our communities

We’ve had some really challenging conversations about residents’ concerns over the noise, particularly this summer and the need for significant investment in business, transport and community infrastructure should the runway be given the green light.  . Those are the very issues we raised as conditions needing to be addressed when we gave support in principle.

But as I have said earlier now we need to move on and plan for either scenario.  Second runway or not, we have to plan for the future of the whole county.  We have to do what we can now to ensure there are sufficient jobs across the county for children being born now and their children thereafter.

What we are doing is trying to plan not only the future economy of West Sussex but also for our residents. The County Council has 3 key priorities, The Start of Life, The Economy and Later Life – all are inextricably linked, we are looking as we have never done before from when a child starts in life right through the very late life and all between and the economy plays an enormously important role in giving employement and providing the funds that enable us to support those in need.

The County Council is the strategic authority so whatever happens it has a very large and important role of the long term -  for future generations in West Sussex.

For me, that is the County Council’s main role and that is what differentiates our role from that of the local MP or local district or borough councillor.  In looking at Gatwick Airport and planning for a second runway or not, we have to consider the implications for not only the immediate Gatwick area and the areas affected by the flight paths, but the repercussions for the whole county, from Crawley to the coast.

It is a unique role and one that I’m proud to have but it brings with it many, many challenges and responsibilities of which I am very aware.  Not least, how we balance our stunning and beautiful environment with the need for a strong economy for future jobseekers and investors.  Unfortunately the job does not bring with it a crystal ball.

West Sussex is in a unique situation to other Authorities as Gatwick is in the County ultimately, the decision as to whether there is a second runway at Gatwick Airport is not the County Council’s to make.  We have to take control of our own destiny as much as we can and plan constructively for the future, second runway or not.  That is going to be one of the Council’s main areas of focus in the coming years.

In the meantime, the County Council is carefully considering the consultation material published by the Commission.  This will inform the drafting of a response to the Commission to be reported to our Environmental and Community Services Select Committee at its January meeting and then debated at Full county Council on the 19th January.

Finally could I encourage everyone to engage in the Commission’s consultation and make their views known.
Louise Goldsmith.
Leader West Sussex County Council
Chichester West Division.

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