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Matt Smith: UK risks being left behind if runway debate continues to drag on

One of the longest-running debates over transport in the UK is perhaps also the most important: where should we build an extra airport runway to increase capacity?

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When the Airports Commission’s report concluded last July that a new runway at Heathrow Airport was the best option, it looked like we were close to a resolution. But the discussion – particularly over the environmental impact of the decision – rages on, and now a decision on which airport will get the go-ahead is not expected until after the summer.

Heathrow has the support of many business leaders, more than 270 of whom signed a letter to prime minister David Cameron urging him to choose the west London airport for expansion. They argue the move could open up commercial opportunities in the surrounding area, and leave Heathrow better connected to emerging markets such as China.

Expansion would also help Heathrow fend off increasing competition as a hub airport from European rivals, with Amsterdam’s Schiphol and Paris’s Charles de Gaulle among the alternatives for travellers catching connecting flights on the continent.

But residents of nearby areas Longford, Harmondsworth and Sipson oppose a decision that could see their homes purchased for land to build the new Heathrow runway on, and there are worries about noise over other local areas. Meanwhile, those arguing for expansion at Gatwick say fewer people would be affected, since it is further from central London.

There are also concerns over the level of pollution that could be generated if the project goes ahead. Conservative mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith even said the extra runway will not be built at Heathrow unless emissions tests are “rigged”. He insisted the expansion of the west London hub is “off the agenda” for this reason.

But some see the latest delay as a ploy by the Conservative Party to boost Goldsmith’s chances in the upcoming election, and businesses are growing impatient. Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways owner International Airlines Group, said in December that he would take his business elsewhere if David Cameron did not stop “dithering” over the decision.

The CBI warned in 2014 that it was critical to the UK’s long-term growth that work on a new runway starts by 2020, and time is running out. More recently, its director general, Carolyn Fairbairn, said the latest delay could cost the economy £5billion.

Meanwhile, economic rivals are pushing ahead with much larger expansions. China, for example, has built more than 30 airports – let alone runways – in the last few years. It plans to increase the number of airports within its borders from around 200 to 240 by 2020, and last year it worked on expanding more than 60 existing facilities.

Where the tarmac will eventually be laid remains anybody’s guess, but one thing is certain: in the face of mounting pressure, the government needs to make a decision and push ahead with the construction of a new runway or the UK risks being left behind.