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Economy & Business

Our runway: politics pre-empts the business case

A decision has been made against a longer airstrip – or has it?

Airport runway


Since the middle of last year, public debate in Guernsey has been loudest over the question of whether Guernsey should have a longer runway.  A review of options by the consultancy arm of PwC was produced for the island’s top politicians in September.  Better late than never, this is due to be published in time for the March meeting of the States assembly.  But the senior Policy & Resources Committee has set its face against spending money on the project unless the assembly directs it to.

So far, so simple.  However, there are enough wrinkles in this to impress Methuselah:

  • The PwC report stopped at Phase 1 of two.  It is thought to have made no recommendation, instead outlining in some detail the options apart from leaving the runway at its current length of 1,463 metres.  The lengths considered are understood to be 1,570m, 1,700m, 1,800m and 2,000m, each of them defined in a particular way: a minor addition to the existing strip; an extension inside the outermost airport boundary; an expansion into the area on the eastern border already ring-fenced for the purpose where no expensive planning application would be required; and a wider swathe of infrastructure entailing a loss of houses.  PwC are ready to conduct a second phase cost-benefit analysis on one or more of the options as and when directed by the States.
  • The Phase 1 report has been seen only by the Policy & Resources Committee, whose key figures in this instance are its president Gavin St Pier and vice-president Lyndon Trott, by the Economic Development Committee, headed by Charles Parkinson, and by the States Trading Supervisory Board, headed by Peter Ferbrache.  These four individuals are, together, the most powerful quartet in the assembly.  If they are aligned on any issue, it would be difficult for them to be defeated.  The assembly’s other deputies have not seen the PwC report.  No reasons have been proffered.
  • For reasons which can only be guessed at, Deputy Trott suddenly announced at the December States meeting – and on the very day that the assembly was persuaded to guarantee Aurigny’s $60m purchase of three new aircraft – that P&R was not prepared to support spending on a lengthening of the runway beyond 1,570m.  He said the PwC report had shown that only a lengthening to 2,000m would be a “game changer” for the Guernsey economy because of the kinds of aircraft which would then be able to land and take off.  The consequences for the area around the existing airport, and in particular the cost of the planning inquiry which would be needed, meant that P&R was not prepared to fund the costs even of Phase 2.  He did not say what these costs would be, not least because PwC has not investigated this matter.
  • Some confusion inevitably arose about his assertions, because in talking about the “razing of St Peter” he was referring to an area to the west of the runway which was not under consideration for any lengthening and was not thought to be in the PwC report.  It took some heated exchanges to prompt him to clarify what he had meant and effectively withdraw this particular assertion.  Confusion also arose about whether P&R was really unanimous, and especially about the position of Deputy St Pier.  This was clarified somewhat when Deputy St Pier addressed the Chamber of Commerce later in January and confirmed his resistance alongside Deputy Trott.  A runway extension beyond 1,700m was “undeliverable – politically, socially and environmentally,” he declared.
  • This did not end the matter, because Deputy Parkinson, speaking in a broadcast interview, described Deputy Trott’s position as “bizarre” and speculated that the PwC report hadn’t been published because it didn’t support his own view.  Deputy Trott is known to be strongly supportive of Aurigny, the state-owned and subsidised airline, which might well be subject to increased competition if the runway was lengthened.  There is no hard evidence to support Deputy Parkinson’s speculation, but Deputy Trott’s backing for Aurigny is not in doubt.
  • Also questioning Deputy Trott’s position is Deputy Ferbrache, who is not only a supporter of Aurigny but also wants to see a proper extension of the runway.  And here, buried underneath the avalanche of political differences, lies the fundamental question of what the different extension options offer.  In the answer to this lies the business case which can or cannot be made for a lengthening.

The position regarding the extension itself appears to be as follows, based on work done by enthusiasts for the idea:

  • An extension to 1,570m within the airport boundary is the least problematic but would not be sufficient to increase the aircraft types able to use the airport and thus to justify the likely expenditure involved. If 100m of arrestor zone were added along with a ground landing system, this would not be certain to help, even though it would fit inside the airport boundary and no houses would be lost.
  • An extension to 1,700m plus arrestor zones and a landing system will take the airport into the area currently reserved by planning authorities. But if the arrestor zone could be capped at 100m, most of the reserved area would remain untouched and there would be no houses lost.
  • Further extensions to 1,750m and beyond with large arrestor areas and a landing system would make a Planning Enquiry more likely and would probably involve a handful of lost houses. But it is only at 1,800m and 2,000m that the reserved area would be seriously encroached if not overshot – and the only additional airline which might be enticed to use a 2,000m facility would apparently be Ryanair.

The crucial point in all this is that there is a matrix of possibilities from 1,700m onwards where the runway would become attractive for most aircraft (Airbus 319 and 320, some Boeing 737s, and long-haul corporate jets) – as the example of our sister island’s runway (at 1,700m) already shows.  Yet key political leaders have apparently set their face against such a prospect.

Cost seems to be a factor, but at this stage it is almost impossible to estimate the position.  The PwC report is thought to refer to a cost-per-square-metre figure to lengthen a runway, but this not only depends on traffic volumes and the type of aircraft using it, it also excludes any evaluation of the local benefits.  A full cost-benefit analysis would have to consider the impact of opening the Gatwick route to airlines other than Aurigny.  The answer may depend critically on whether there is also a visitor-attracting improvement in the local tourist offering.

In other words, there is a world of difference between assessing runway-lengthening costs on the basis of monetary outgoings and doing so on the basis of a project which might be an “economic enabler.” As to the cost of such a second phase study by PwC, if this and Phase 1 were to cost, say, £500k, and the runway extension came with a price-tag of £100m, at what point is the cost of PwC’s work too prohibitive to consider?  Surely not at 0.5%, and especially not if it includes an assessment of the knock-on benefits, which local business bodies say will rise eventually to £100m.

Those who have followed this debate have found it surprising that two key figures in the government have decided their position in advance, leaving their peers stranded and the assembly in an invidious position.  This body has in the past willingly decided many things on the basis of majority vote – one thinks of the decision in 2015 to prevent any work on a sales or expenditure tax, or the decision to overhaul the secondary school system, or to have a flawed referendum on island-wide voting.

Now we have this decision on a key element of future infrastructure.  The island’s assembly is supposed to operate on the basis of consensus, but on some issues this has proved seriously problematic.  One can only hope that, whatever the decision and whenever it comes, it will spring from a rational assessment of the facts, and not because of inhibitions about establishing them.


Footnote — An earlier comment on this subject appeared here in July 2018 


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