That is indeed the question. An answer was provided by the Airports Commission headed by Sir Howard Davies: build a third runway at Heathrow. Perhaps the Conservative Party was wise before the General Election not to commit itself to accepting whatever the Commission might recommend. The third runway proposed is very inconvenient. By postponing a decision for six months the Government has exposed itself to scorn from more than one direction.
Speaking for myself, I am glad that the Government is giving itself further time to think about it. The least convincing section of the Davies Report relates to air quality. It is by no means assured that an expanded Heathrow will meet air quality standards to which this country is signed up. Some would say it doesn't meet them now. This part of the Report needs to be radically re-assessed.
However, that is not the Report's only weakness. The thrust of the argument running through it is that London needs a hub airport. I incline to agree. But then Davies contradicts himself. To try to make a third runway more palatable he says the Government should pass legislation prohibiting a fourth. First, a government cannot bind the future in that way; second, those of us familiar with the Stansted saga remember the inspector taking the Airports Enquiries of 1981-83 saying he would recommend expansion at Stansted only if the Government would give an unequivocal commitment not to build a second runway, a commitment duly given but then soon ignored by successive governments; and, third, any airline operator will tell you that a hub airport needs at least four runways.
So to recommend a third runway and pretend you don't need a fourth is just continuing the trail of obfuscation, if not downright deception, which has characterised airports policy for 70 years. If the Government finally opts for some clear thinking on this issue, all bets are off. That may be uncomfortable for us in North West Essex. However, please be assured that I am not recommending a four runway airport at Stansted. There are other solutions, but they need to be future proofed if Britain needs to fly.