Emma Gilthorpe speech: Inside Government Infrastructure Conference

Emma Gilthorpe today gave her first speech as Executive Director for Heathrow Expansion during Inside Government’s infrastructure conference which took place in Birmingham. The full text is published below.

Emma Gilthorpe speech: Inside Government Infrastructure Conference


Good morning everyone, I am Emma Gilthorpe and I am the Executive Director responsible for Expansion at Heathrow. Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today.

Ever since Government Ministers started wearing full PPE whenever they talked about infrastructure, I think it set an expectation that to deliver a project meant walking around in a hard hat and high vis at all times!

But of course Heathrow expansion is about much more than programme schedules and constructability. In fact it is about much more than a new runway.  Expanding Heathrow will benefit the whole country which is why it is a strategic plank in the Government’s modern industrial strategy, especially in a post Brexit era – connecting people and businesses to key economies will be even more important once we leave the EU.

Within that context my job over the next 4 years is to deliver a masterplan and planning consent for a modern, affordable Heathrow that gives us all the airport capacity we need as a nation, to be fit to compete long into the future.

And yes that means creating a huge programme capability and I have lots of experts supporting me in that endeavor. But far more importantly to me, and where I will be focusing most of my energy, is in balancing the different interests and priorities of a complex set of stakeholders –  from airlines, to passengers, to government, to our neighbours in the local community, our colleagues working at Heathrow and of course our investors.

I built my career in the public policy and regulatory area of telecommunications. During the liberalisation of the telecoms industry in the 90s, I negotiated complex market changes working at Cable and Wireless overseas and in the UK. Later on I campaigned for several years for BT to be broken up, which eventually led to BT being forced to separate off its local access network to create the separate company called Openreach in 2006. Now I don’t tell you this because I’m planning some radical redesign of the regulatory model in airports – far from it.  I am telling you because as a result of that campaigning I received a call from the then chief executive of BT. And he said to me: ‘If you think this is a good idea, why don’t you come and help us to set it up?’

This was a real scruples moment for me.  2 years of lobbying for something and he essentially asked me to follow through on all the fine words, roll up my sleeves, and help deliver the solution.

You might think that was something of a poisoned chalice, campaigning and delivery are very distant relations! But he essentially asked me to “put my money where my mouth was” and I do love a challenge so that’s what I did.

It is rare in a career to be recruited, as I was by BT, to hold a mirror up to the company, be paid for playing devil’s advocate, and be able to say what you think, without repercussions, when we are not doing things well enough.  You do of course though, have to help craft the right solutions too!

That experience is something I have carried with me through my career since – to hold up a mirror, to question, and to look for and listen to the alternative perspectives so that ultimately you produce a better outcome for all.

At BT we pushed through the super-fast broadband roll-out, and I was able to marry the interests of the business, with government and consumers, and make things happen by focusing on where those interests align.

Now stepping up to be Expansion Director at Heathrow I find myself facing a very similar, if even more exciting and even more complex, challenge.


I don’t think I am giving away any great secret when I say that it took years of campaigning, of explaining the hub airport concept, of demonstrating we would do the right thing by local people if and when Government gave us their support. So in a way it is similar to the call I had from BT, but this time it was the Secretary of State for Transport who told us to ‘follow through, roll up our sleeves” and deliver an expansion plan that was affordable, financeable, fair to local people and that put Britain back in the fast lane when it comes to connectivity.

So for me and my team that is what delivering Heathrow expansion is all about. Not laying a new strip of tarmac or building new terminal facilities – though we will need to do that of course!  My job to deliver on the promise of Heathrow Expansion for all of our stakeholders.

So what are the main challenges? Well it needs to be delivered at break neck speed.  It is most definitely a complex feat of engineering in a very tight footprint. And I believe it’s one of the biggest DCOs every undertaken. But at its heart the biggest challenge, and my primary focus, is to manage and try to balance the many competing interests so we can deliver the best expansion outcome for Britain.

So we are approaching this imaginatively. We could have started by setting out a programme with timelines and resourcing schedules – that would be the normal approach.

But we have deliberately not done that.


I joined Heathrow in 2009, initially as Regulatory Director, later becoming Strategy Director. I was brought in, in part, to broker a new partnership between airlines and regulators, building the right environment for improvement and investment.

Over my seven years, I’ve been proud to play a part in the transformation of Heathrow – seeing the injection of much needed investment that puts the needs of our passengers first, improving relationships with our customer airlines and helping to restore Heathrow’s status as a truly national asset.

And we achieved this by seeing things from a broad range of perspectives. The perspective of the passenger, our airlines, our local communities, our regulator and we have worked hard to help them understand our perspective.

So back to that more imaginative approach – Around my leadership team, a different person represents a different interest; one for Passengers, one for our Local Communities, one for Airlines, one for Investors, one person leads for our People (or Workforce), one for the Planning Inspectorate, and of course one for the Programme itself!  I want to make sure our decision making is balanced, that we are doing the right thing and that the perspectives of each of these groups is consistently represented.

The runway we will be taking off from in 2025 will definitely be made of concrete and tarmac – that isn’t up for debate! But exactly when it is built will impact on the phasing of our passenger charges. Where it is built will affect different communities and change our airspace which will alter our noise footprint. Who builds it and then operates it will depend on how well we use this lead-in time to ensure the talent and skills pipeline is in place that we will need to complete the project.

This is why expansion isn’t just a fantastic opportunity to help create a new physical environment for Heathrow (with all the great business that brings to the supply chain).

Or even just the opportunity to establish what I hope will be a good business case for investors. Or even just the opportunity that expansion represents for UK plc to help regain its position in the world.

More than all of that for me it represents an opportunity to change the way we do things at Heathrow and to change the way we are perceived.


This complex project requires hundreds of decisions to be taken each day – some small, some huge. So I will also be relying on other key decision makers, such as Government, to make clear plans for improvements to surface access to ensure we have a truly integrated transport hub, to modernise airspace and to stick to the ambitious NPS timetable.

Delivering Heathrow expansion will only be achieved by multiple companies and agencies working in collaboration. And I am keen we all learn the lessons from the past – as you know, Heathrow expansion is not exactly a new idea.

When I first arrived at Heathrow, only a few weeks before the Government of the day cancelled the last third runway (2010), I would often hear people locally refer to us as Fortress Heathrow – a large business with a big perimeter fence that happens to be housed in the south west of London but that could really have been anywhere.  For me, expansion represents a real opportunity to complete Heathrow’s transformation into a living, breathing member of a thriving community where local people benefit directly from living near us and we get the most out of the community we reside in.

My goal is not just to gain planning approval for expansion but to ensure we earn our license to grow.

I feel particularly passionately about this because I am a member of the local community. I have lived near the airport for 20 years, I shop at the local Sainsbury, my children go to school locally, and I hear the concerns of local people in the street I live in and at the school gate. A majority of local people support expansion –  and I feel a strong sense of responsibility that we must now deliver something that works for those local communities as well for our investors and airlines and passengers.

And if people don’t support expansion – I don’t see my role as ‘converting them to the cause’ – but I do want to make sure they know the full story –  How many jobs we are creating; How many unemployed people we are getting into work; how we are stepping up our sustainability ambition and taking really challenging and industry leading positions in order to do the right thing.


We need to emphasise the value we add locally and we need to build trust by doing what we say we are going to do. And that is what I expect my neighbours to judge me on. Did I deliver on the promises made to local people? The prize for local people is huge. Ending youth unemployment in the areas closest to the airport, expanding our Heathrow Academy programme to give people skills that will lead to a career not just a short term job; more support for FE colleges and technical training;  and 10,000 apprenticeships. And this is why a People Director sits at the heart of the Programme I’ve built – to make sure that, from day 1, Heathrow expansion delivers the legacy we have promised.

The Programme team at Heathrow has a wealth of experience in big infrastructure programmes.  And one thing we have learnt beyond all else through Terminal 5 and Terminal 2 is that you have to be building it for somebody. We call it “planning with the end in mind”. You can build a beautiful building with a wavy roof but if it doesn’t work for airlines and they don’t bring passengers then it won’t work for investors.  But by that same token, with an airport the equivalent economic size and impact of Leeds, you can be a huge force for good – why wouldn’t we have a crèche for local working parents to make flexible working at the airport more feasible or a doctor’s surgery for local people that also helps keep absentee rates down at the airport?  And clear career paths for our local young people who are ambitious and want to be part of the airport success story.

To succeed, we must make sure that this transformation works for our local community AND is commercially rational for our airlines and investors. That is what delivering modern, affordable infrastructure is all about.


The recent publication of the Government’s draft National Policy Statement is the first major delivery milestone and evidence that Heathrow expansion is advancing on schedule. We are working through our response and encouraging everyone to respond with their views by 25th May.

In parallel we are heavily into the optioneering phase to ensure we have the best solutions for the various infrastructure components that will make up an expanded Heathrow. We are working with other infrastructure projects, our supply chain and LEPs and Chambers across the country to make sure we can maximize the use of off-site manufacture in our construction. This not only spreads economic benefits across the country but also gives us operational, environmental and cost advantages as we start expanding while still running the busiest two runway airport in the word. We will be consulting publically over the summer on the various masterplan options as part of our preparation for the DCO application in 2019, ensuring that our eventual planning application is heavily informed by the views of all of our stakeholders.

With a challenge of this magnitude, I am under no illusion that there are significant risks: political, financial, regulatory, construction, project risks, I could go on…

But I am really clear that the end point is not building a beautiful building with a wavy roof; Heathrow is no regular piece of infrastructure – expansion represents a huge opportunity to change, transform, and be a better business and we need to grasp that opportunity with both hands.

Thank you.

Check against delivery

Related news:

Share this page