Cleared for takeoff? Of course not. The supreme court has ruled that Heathrow’s third runway can proceed, but the chances of the thing being built still look remote. The obstacle of legality – admittedly, a large obstruction – has been removed, but the list of problems remains long.
One is whether demand still exists for an extra 700 flights a day. Even when the pandemic passes, who can really estimate the long-term impact of Zoom on the critical business traveller market? Heathrow handled 80 million passengers in 2018 and has seen only 20 million so far this year. Achieving 130 million in 2030, which is what the airport needs to support its enormous scheme, looks a stretch.
Then there’s the question of how the consortium behind Heathrow would pay for a third runway. The airport, one of the most expensive in the world, is already in a state of war with airlines over landing fees to recover Covid costs. Even if the airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority could be bullied, giving fees a second crank to accumulate funds for a new runway would risk making the demand problem worse.
And the most formidable hurdle, despite the supreme court’s ruling, is still the UK’s binding commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. The Climate Change Committee, the government’s official adviser, is wedded to the concept of “no net expansion of airports”, and David Joffe, its head of carbon budgets, spelled out what that means in practice last week.
“Clearly the most high-profile potential increase in capacity is in the south-east, and if that expansion of capacity goes ahead, then that means not only no expansion of regional airports, but that some of them would have to restrict flights or would have to close,” he said.
New technology and cleaner aviation fuel could change the emissions calculations, but those improvements lie over the horizon. Closing a regional airport or two, to allow more transatlantic travellers to change planes west of London sounds like an impossible demand in the age of “levelling up”.
Heathrow is obliged to continue to whistle its happy tune about how a third runway would “allow Global Britain to become a reality” but one wonders whether its own executives even believe it. One suspects they wouldn’t mind terribly if the government pulled the plug, thereby improving the airport’s claim for compensation for the vast sums already spent on developing plans.
Somebody, though, should put an end to this saga. A third runway at Heathrow was always a rotten idea – it’s the wrong place to expand.
Dixons Carphone can wait but can’t forget to make a decision
The morality of repaying business rates relief is straightforward in many cases. The big four supermarkets and B&M, with their doors open throughout lockdown, obviously had to do the decent thing and cough up. So, too, B&Q owner Kingfisher, now joined by Travis Perkins in respect of its Wickes and Toolstation businesses, equal beneficiaries of the DIY boom.
But what about Dixons Carphone? On one hand, the electricals retailer was another lockdown winner. Wednesday’s half-year figures showed like-for-like sales growth of 16% and a tripling of topline profits to £95m in the UK and Ireland as punters summoned laptops and PlayStations by ordering online.
On the other hand, the group’s stores were classed as non-essential and so had to close during lockdown, which is an important consideration when one’s talking about relief from a property-based tax.
And look at what Dixons’ direct rivals are doing. The John Lewis Partnership takes the view that values are great, but only when they can be afforded, so won’t be returning anything for its Waitrose stores that were open. Sainsbury’s, when handing back £440m of relief for its supermarkets, kept Argos’s £40m, so it would seem a tad harsh to be angry with Dixons. And Amazon and AO.com, the other big players, are online-only and making hay.
Dixons’ inelegant solution was to play for time. No sums will go to the Treasury immediately, but the board may take a different view in six months’ time when, one hopes, a jabbed-up world is functioning more normally.
In truth, Dixons should probably repay something since it clearly needed no help to get through the pandemic, which was the other principle behind the Treasury’s relief scheme. So, yes, wait for the full-year numbers if you must. Just don’t forget to make a decision.