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Gatwick director Raymond Melee: Heathrow supporters 'misguided' but welcome to bid for Gatwick £1.2bn upgrades

Contractors urging support for Heathrow in a letter to the chancellor were “misguided”, according to Gatwick’s development director, as he claimed that Heathrow’s third runway bid is destined to fail.

The chief executives of major contractors including Balfour Beatty, Laing O’Rourke and Mace were among 13 organisations that last week called on George Osborne to back Heathrow as the location for airport expansion in London.

The letter was seen as a blow to Gatwick, which has publicly claimed to be attracting greater business support in recent months, ahead of the government ruling on airport expansion later this year.

Speaking exclusively to Construction News, Raymond Melee said he would still welcome those contractors pledging support for Heathrow to compete for £1.2bn of work at Gatwick over the next five years, as well as possible second runway roles should the project go ahead.

He said: “I would respectfully say the letter was misguided. Construction groups here want to get on with it, which I understand. They’re saying the Airports Commission has approved Heathrow so let’s go with it.

“I don’t think they really understand the detail to the level we do, but if I’m a contractor I just want opportunities to get on and do work.”

Of the contractors that signed the letter, Balfour Beatty, Laing O’Rourke, Mace and Morgan Sindall were all appointed to Gatwick’s most recent major projects framework in 2011

Mr Melee added: “We have work right now that leads to the second runway. Contractors are free to work here, at Heathrow, wherever they want. The fact that they work at other airports hopefully improves their quality and capability to do better.

“I encourage them to bid for work at Gatwick. Wishing for something to happen is [different] from something actually being deliverable and I don’t see from everything I’m aware of how Heathrow can be delivered.”

Gatwick officials have raised the fact that the airport hit more than 40m passengers annually in 2015, despite the commission saying it would not happen until 2024, as a reason why the airport commission recommendation could be overruled.

Mr Melee also attacked Heathrow’s plans for a third runway, citing the cost of construction, the need for some work to be publicly funded, and environmental issues.

He said: “If government awards to Gatwick we’ll get on with the business of delivering the second runway. If they award to Heathrow, which would be an unfortunate decision for a number of reasons, we believe they will fail in two to three years like they have done for the last 25 years. They simply cannot deliver the airport to comply with the environmental requirements.”

Heathrow chairman John Holland Kaye last week denied that environmental concerns would derail the project, pointing to the airport’s 16 per cent reduction in emissions over five years.

He said: “You may hear that air quality is a problem. Not so. Heathrow today meets all EU air quality standards, and with expansion we will still meet them – in fact we won’t release new capacity until we can demonstrate that is the case.”

However, Mr Melee questioned whether investors would “take the risk” of backing the project if concerns over the environmental impact persisted. 

He said Heathrow would struggle to deliver a new runway in time for the government’s 2030 target, a claim Heathrow denied when contacted by Construction News, with a spokesman saying it would be operational by 2025 should it get the green light in July.

Mr Melee said: “Our analysis says [based on them starting] last year it would take them to 2029 to deliver the new runway. Now that it starts to slip and there’s more complexity, we think there’s further danger of Heathrow not being able to deliver by 2030, which further invalidates them from complying with the government’s original requirements.”

He added: “In terms of the runway, I hope [the signatories to the letter] are proved wrong, but I understand their motivation. They’re in business. If I’m in the construction industry and so far the only signals I’ve got is from the Airports Commission that recommended Heathrow, then what would you do – disregard that?

“I would say conversely that if the commission had recommended Gatwick I’m sure they would have written the letter in favour of Gatwick.”

A Heathrow spokesman said: “The Airports Commission unanimously and unambiguously recommended Heathrow expansion last year – it agreed that we’ll deliver a third runway by 2025 (and we’re on target to deliver) and we’ll do it within environmental limits.

“We have a proven track record of delivering major infrastructure – we completed a new Terminal 2 in 2014 on time and on budget. And that was the culmination of an £11bn investment programme that now sees Heathrow rated as the best major airport in Europe.”

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