Francis Maude: There is still a lazy assumption on Gatwick

Horsham MP Francis Maude
Horsham MP Francis Maude

You will all be aware that on Tuesday the Airports Commission launched its consultation phase, with a detailed document assessing the three options still under consideration.

The commission is to be commended for the breadth and depth of its work so far, but each of the three shortlisted options will come under intense scrutiny during this phase, when many stakeholders will be invited to put more flesh on the bones, as it were.

It is a very long and complex document, and I will be writing about it in greater detail when I and my staff have been over it several times. For now I will just say that from the reporting I have heard, seen and read, it would seem that there is still something of a lazy assumption that expansion at Gatwick is the easiest option to deliver in political terms.

Let no-one be in any doubt about this – it isn’t.

This predominantly rural area, with very low levels of unemployment, huge pressure on the provision of housing - without any additional influx of many thousands of workers who will not be expected to commute far, and a local road and rail system already at capacity, would struggle to accommodate an airport which doubles in size to handle more passengers than Heathrow does today. West Sussex MPs meet with the county council Cabinet again this week, and I expect a passionate and lively debate about this issue.

Significant move

Readers may have seen that the European Court of Justice - ECJ - earlier this week decided in favour of the decision by the German government to restrict the entitlement to welfare benefits of migrants from within the EU.

This is a significant move. There is widespread concern about the scale of immigration into Britain. Under the coalition immigration from outside the EU has fallen to the sort of levels before 1997. But it’s proved impossible to control EU immigration in the same way. Freedom of movement is key to an effective EU single market, the centrepiece of the common market that Britain has always strongly supported and promoted.

There are said to be four essential freedoms: freedom of movement of capital, of goods, of services, and of labour. But this last freedom cannot be unqualified. It is freedom to move to work, not to live, and certainly not to live in another country on that country’s welfare benefits.

So this ECJ decision is important. It means that Britain can, like Germany, impose sensible restrictions on entitlement to welfare benefits on such EU migrants.

But this isn’t enough. David Cameron has committed the next Conservative Government to undertake a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the rest of the EU. This renegotiation will need to make absolutely clear that the freedom of movement of people is by no means absolute. This judgement is an important first step, which refutes those who claim that there can be no progress within the EU. But it is only a first step.