Laying the foundations Article icon

Laying

When is a lobbying campaign not a lobbying campaign? When it concerns the political hot potato of securing a third runway for Heathrow Airport.

At least, that's the claim of protagonists for the airport's expansion who say there's been no officially orchestrated campaign by owner BAA, with emphasis instead put on simply getting a topic that has been shelved back onto the discussion table.
 
Opponents of the plan, which would allow an extra 500 flights a day over London but involve the demolition at least 260 homes, disagree, arguing that rivalling the Olympics for front page exposure last month must have taken a great deal of organising and a sizeable PR budget.
 
But, whether the claim represents finely-tuned nuancing or mealy-mouthed semantics, bringing Heathrow's expansion back onto the political agenda is precisely what was achieved.
 
Former environment minister Tim Yeo questioned whether Prime Minister David Cameron was 'man or mouse' on the issue while other politicians weighed in on the alternative of the mooted Thames Estuary airport dubbed 'Boris Island' after London Mayor Boris Johnson, its most voluble supporter.
 
The saga briefly threatened a cabinet resignation and forced by-election until Cameron reshuffled former transport secretary Justine Greening, mollified Richmond Park MP Zac Goldsmith and announced an independent aviation review which will not report until after the next election. 
 
The economic case
So how did the Heathrow issue achieve such momentum? It's a difficult question, not least because Heathrow, BAA and their PR agencies won't speak much about it on the record. Neil Daugherty, director of Blue Rubicon, one of six PR agencies on Heathrow's roster, says: 'It's a matter of public record that we work for Heathrow and have been doing so for the last 18 months.
 
'It's also a matter of public record that this has been very much an evidence-based approach, with a core base of evidence looking at emerging markets and how much it costs the UK economy.'
 
Richard Scott, head of news for BAA, is even more tight-lipped, declining to comment at all. However, commentators believe the campaign's achievement has been to project the runway as an issue not for environmentalists or for noise pollution but for Britain's growth agenda.
 
'Getting government to change its mind on something substantial like this is very difficult and quite unusual,' says David Simonson, managing partner of financial public relations agency College Hill. 'But I think the campaign has succeeded in getting it back on the agenda because of its importance to London's competitive position.
 
'They managed to get people to take a much more realistic view of it in terms of London's links to other transport hubs, the competitive threat of other airports with greater capacity and the problem associated with building a completely new airport in the Thames estuary.
 
'The key message has been that this is an issue that isn't going to go away and that a third runway at Heathrow is the best solution.'
 
It's a message that Heathrow elected to have delivered by other voices, with Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways' owner International Airlines Group, the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress proving unusual bedfellows in support.
 
Ammunition was also provided by Connecting For Growth: The Role of Britain's Hub Airport in Economic Activity, a report commissioned by BAA from consultancy Frontier Economics and published a year ago.
 
It claims Britain's lack of direct flights to emerging markets may already be costing the economy £1.2 billion a year as trade goes to better-connected competitors.
 
The report itself took some careful positioning, however. 'BAA approached a lot of economic consultancies with specific terms of reference to provide evidence of support for certain conclusions,' says Dan Elliott, director at Frontier Economics.
 
'But we came back to them and said no, we were not prepared to do that because, if you are going to use economic growth as your argument, it needs to be absolutely clean and robust and outlined in a way that the business audience will understand, not a complicated black box model invented by an economist.
 
'We simplified and clarified it in these areas and reduced the scope to what was realistic to prove. The truth is that Heathrow is the hub airport for London. 'Our report does not say that the best place for a hub airport is Heathrow and we did not provide a cost-benefit analysis of Heathrow versus Boris Island. Our report just says this is the cost of the constraint of Heathrow.'
 
What a difference a flight makes
The report demonstrates a strong relationship between frequent direct flights and economic growth, stating that trade between UK businesses and emerging market countries that have direct daily flights to the UK is 20 times higher than trade with developing countries that do not.
 
Paris and Frankfurt already boast 1,000 more flights than Heathrow to the three largest cities in China every year, while 21 emerging market destinations including Manila, Guangzhou, and Jakarta have daily flights from other European hubs but are not served from Heathrow.
 
With more than half the world's economic growth expected to come from emerging markets over the next decade, the report says the inability of airlines to establish hub links from Heathrow to such markets, like other European hub airports in Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam are doing, will place UK businesses at a competitive disadvantage to French, German, Dutch, and Spanish firms.
 
One Heathrow source said: 'A lot of people looking at why Heathrow's third runway came back onto the agenda think there must have been a massive secret lobbying campaign behind it but that is just not true. It is driven itself because of the importance of economic development. The reason there is so much talk about aviation capacity in the UK is the lack of economic growth.
 
'Politicians, business groups and the public at large realise that something needs to be done and that investing in aviation and better trade links is a good way of doing it.'
 
In targeting economic growth as an argument, BAA successfully pinpointed the hottest topic on the UK political agenda, according to one corporate communicator at an issue-based public relations consultancy.
 
'All three political parties may be officially against a third runway at Heathrow,' she says, 'but there are an awful lot of people within all three parties who are not. And the key votewinner at the next election is going to be how to get economic growth.
 
'The two places people are finding economic growth are house building and aviation so it's no surprise that both have come back onto the agenda.'
 
Time to develop
Not all commentators agree, with some saying the issue has no bearing on short-term growth since expansion of Heathrow is likely to take at least 12 years. Nevertheless, construction time is also seen as an issue by Norman Foster & Partners, the architects behind the £23 billion Thames Estuary plan.
 
Earlier this month the firm unveiled a report by lawyers Bircham Dyson Bell claiming that the development could be built within 14 years. Analysts see huge political capital in the issue. 'Boris Johnson has got an awful lot of kudos from all this,' says one. 'Imagine if the estuary plan goes ahead and his name is associated with the biggest aviation hub in London. He'll be hailed as a visionary and big thinker. That really would be one in the eye for David Cameron.'
 
Peter Bingle, founding director of Peter Bingle Consulting, goes further, writing in a recent blog that Heathrow has become 'the battleground for the future of the Tory party'.
 
'Boris is on the side of the people,' he writes. 'The PM and Chancellor are on the side of big business and the airlines. This is brilliant positioning by the Mayor. No wonder that Number 10 is spitting blood.' Others see the debate also illustrating an opinion shift on environmental issues, with noise pollution from aviation now viewed as a greater concern than climate change, following the European Union's move to bring greenhouse gas emissions from flying within its carbon emissions caps.
 
The timing of the Olympics also cannot be ignored. 'I don't know whether there was an organised campaign or not,' says Mary Whenman, managing director of public relations agency Grayling's corporate and financial practice. 'But if you need to put across a point about Heathrow capacity, the Olympics is a very good time to do so.
 
'This is not a project that's dead in the water. It's one that's temporarily on hold for political reasons and will come back to the public agenda. It's something that's not going to go away.'
 
Simon Whale, managing director of communications consultancy Luther Pendragon, agrees, saying that Heathrow's third runway is simply an example of 'a major public policy and national infrastructure issue that inevitably 'bounces on and off the public agenda'.
 
'This is what happens with important decisions about national infrastructure and economic development,' he says. Right now, it looks as if it is bouncing off again but campaigners on both sides need to be ready for the rebound.