LONDON, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Britain must make a decision on a new airport runway soon after the general election in 2015 to avoid a capacity crunch that could cost the economy up to 45 billion pounds ($74 billion), the head of a government advisory body said on Monday.
The government set up the UK Airports Commission, chaired by Howard Davies, in 2012 to look into airport capacity in southern England. It is due to publish a final recommendation on where runway expansion should take place after the next general election in May 2015.
Citing a looming capacity shortage in Britain, which by the mid-2020s would be “significant”, Davies said the newly elected government would have to act fast after the Commission makes its final recommendations in the summer of next year.
“We certainly think that a decision very shortly after the next election will be important and urgent,” he told members of parliament’s transport select committee.
Davies said the detailed planning which the commission was undertaking meant that if a government could build consensus around the recommendation, it would be able to produce a draft plan for the new project in a matter of months.
In an interim report in December, Davies shortlisted three options - building a new runway at either of London’s two biggest airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, and extending an existing runway at Heathrow.
An idea to build a new airport on the Isle of Grain to the east of London, backed by London’s high-profile mayor Boris Johnson, should also remain an option, the report said. But it has not yet been shortlisted.
That report estimated that not building a new runway near to London would limit air traffic, costing the British economy 30 billion pounds to 45 billion pounds between 2021 and 2080.
The forecast costs of the shortlisted Heathrow and Gatwick options, including related infrastructure, range from 15 billion pounds to 20 billion pounds, while the Isle of Grain proposal could cost up to 110 billion pounds, Davies said.
The location of any new runway capacity is a toxic political issue with local groups opposing the noise, traffic and pollution associated with more air traffic. Some lawmakers have suggested the timing of the report making its final recommendation after the election is significant.
Passions ran high during Britain’s last 2010 election over a possible expansion at Heathrow, for example, with supporters of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in west London helping make sure the now ruling coalition of the two parties dropped the plans.
Davies batted off questions about the political implications of the timing of the recommendations.
“We were asked to deliver a report after the general election. If you ask could we have delivered a report before the general election, I‘m sure we could have delivered a report, but we were asked to do it after,” he said.
Davies added that he would “rise above this vulgar abuse” after London mayor Johnson - who has been tipped as a possible rival to Prime Minister David Cameron - was quoted by some media criticising the commission’s work.