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The UK airport debate heated up further yesterday at the RunwaysUK event in London.

While the Mayor of London’s aviation adviser, Daniel Moylan, accused the Davies Commission of trying to secure “the worst possible outcome for the capital”, the chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover, Dr Ralf Speth, accused it of giving a “lack of priority” to the regions, where the majority of UK manufacturing takes place.

Sir Howard Davies has been tasked with reviewing the options to extend the UK’s airport capacity, and – aside from the Mayor of London’s office – appears to have relatively broad support from a wide spectrum of interests.

Emphasising the need to “build a good, strong analytical framework”, he explained how the Commission was looking at how capacity could be improved in the short term through better airspace management and surface access.

For the longer term, the Commission has whittled around 50 proposals down to three: a third runway at Heathrow; a second runway at Gatwick; or an extension to Heathrow’s northern runway to allow it to operate as two independent runways.

Much of the debate at yesterday’s event centred on noise pollution after Sir Howard made it clear that there would be trade-offs.

The final choice wouldn’t “meet every metric”, he said.

Discomfort for residents near airports would need to be offset against “significant dis-benefits to other people if you put the airport a long way away. It needs to be balanced,” he said.

The Commission is also considering an option for an airport on the Isle of Grain, on the Thames in East London, although it has yet to be included on the shortlist.

“This is a once-in-a-century decision,” said Sir Howard.

“London is shifting east. But there are significant environment risks [with the Isle of Grain option]… and access issues, connections and daunting costs of between £80 and £100bn. Will businesses relocate? What will the effect be of closing City Airport and Heathrow?

“It is not persuasive enough to recommend…  but the scale and complexity means more research is needed.”

The Commission will examine surface transport to London and elsewhere, the environmental implications, the socio-economic impact, and whether it is operationally feasible – whether the pricing would be acceptable to airlines and passengers.

The Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, whose personal political style could be summed up as noisy vacuity, favours the Isle of Grain option, and his adviser, Mr Moylan, said the “richer residents living near Heathrow didn’t need the economic benefits the airport brings”, while the poorer community in East London would relish the jobs – and presumably complain less about the noise.

No mention was made of businesses needing to relocate, but Mr Moylan complained that a “grossly unfair advantage had been given to Heathrow” and that the Commission was “anti-London”.

Claiming that the elitely-educated Mayor “articulates the public voice”, he added: “The decision-making to date… has had a touch of the Simon Cowell about it, with conclusions in some cases startlingly adrift from the numerical and other evidence.”

Huw Edwards, partner of Foster & Partners, the architectural firm which designed Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong and Beijing Airport, claimed the cost of an Isle of Grain airport would only be $20bn, against $18bn for a Heathrow expansion, and that with four runways it was a long-term solution.

Business would have years to work on their relocation plans, he added.

Mr Edwards, ironically perhaps, given the freight industry’s apparent enthusiasm for the Heathrow option, was the only speaker to talk about the importance of freight, although he focused on the value of belly freight. “This is a true investment for the future,” he said.

With environmental, business, regional and residential interests to accommodate, Sir Howard’s job is not an easy one. But he said the Commission would endeavour to weigh each interest against the others, and that it would decide whether to include the Isle of Grain option on the shortlist by the autumn.

Reassuring delegates that the process would be fair and transparent, he said: “We need to ensure our decisions are defensible and not vulnerable to challenge.”

Of course, whether the government of the day has the courage to act on his final recommendation remains in doubt.

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