David Cameron’s Heathrow U-turn capitulated to the toughest corporate lobby of our times and its claims of what’s best for ‘UK plc’
We now know the answer. There are still three possible sites for new London airport runways: at Heathrow, Gatwick or the Thames estuary. The news is at least a quarter of a century old. Connoisseurs of British indecision will greet Sir Howard Davies’s announcement on Tuesday as an all-time, blue-chip, 24-carat masterpiece of the genre. We are back where we started.
If anyone doubted this, instant confirmation came from the lugubrious transport secretary, Patrick McCloughlin, who declared: “The government has not ruled out any option for airport expansion.” The object of the entire exercise was to minimise the number of unhappy people . The Heathrow lobby, which has played a blinder, has its airport back in play. Gatwick remains the likeliest option, as it’s cheap and ready to go in 2019. It also happens to be the right answer. Davies has also shrewdly kept the London mayor, Boris Johnson, on side by asking for “more study” of his grand project on the Isle of Grain in the Thames estuary.
Even those who think more runways in London are not really necessary in the long term can draw comfort from a decision yet again postponed. As for David Cameron, he has got what he wanted: cover for his most breathtaking U-turn yet, on a pledge that, if he became prime minister, the option of a third runway at Heathrow was dead with “no ifs, no buts“.
Davies has performed a classic establishment minuet. He has offered his political patrons a decorous rationale for indecision. The new runway is declared not to be needed until 2030. As for which might be best – the only really interesting answer – Davies has been ordered to keep his preference secret until the next election. Economics is thus humiliated on the altar of politics, and principle is sacrificed to expediency.
After the election, McCloughlin claims that Cameron’s pledge of no new runway “in this parliament” will have expired. It seems to have passed his notice that no one ever proposed a runway “in this parliament”, nor was that Cameron’s pledge, which was of no new Heathrow runway ever. Politicians seem to take the public for idiots.
That said, there is sense in much of Davies’s report. In interviews he seemed sceptical of the “hub” concept, still an ideological fixation for state airlines and capital cities but long abandoned by the private sector (as in the US). Passengers increasingly demand point-to-point travel. Davies kept in play the less polluting options for Heathrow, though a northwest runway would render Cameron’s old school, Eton, almost uninhabitable. He accepted the possible case for the Thames estuary site, but only if London’s growth were recast eastwards. This rather blows his shortlist apart and opens a whole new territory for inquiry and delay. Perhaps Davies wants to chair a commission on it.
We are less clear amid the fog of conflicting financial and environmental pressures. The runway debate is still dominated not by planning but by business. This is despite 80% of London’s air passengers being non-business, as everyone who uses an airport knows. Even Heathrow has just a third of its passengers classified as being on business. By encouraging (in effect, subsidising) ever more Britons to holiday abroad, extra runway capacity would probably harm rather than help the balance of payments.
If Heathrow were really obsessed with business flights to the much-cited Asian and South American destinations it would reallocate slots to them, rather than stuffing its schedule with the British Isles and Europe. We need to remember that Heathrow is not a nationalised airport but a private company, one in league with BA. Since the latter took over BMI’s routes, Heathrow has been heavily committed to the UK and European short-haul market, including flights to Manchester, Glasgow and Ireland. Though they have relevance to hub demand, barely a third of Heathrow passengers are in transit. Heathrow’s talk about business destinations and “UK plc” is just lobbying for public money.
As Davies has shown, Heathrow’s blind self-interest does not of itself invalidate its case for a new runway. There is evidence that quieter planes and new flight paths might reduce the noise pollution from a westward expansion. But all those options would be hugely expensive and disruptive. It leaves the question of what is wrong with a bigger Gatwick – other than that it would upset BA.
Other questions are left hanging. How do we ascribe rights to the nuisance caused to residents for the convenience of travellers? What value should be given to the ecology of the Gatwick countryside or the Thames marshes? Why should taxpayers spend money subsidising hyper-mobile tourists?
Davies seems to regard every plane traveller as equally “in need” of a runway, which makesmaking them all equally entitled to his “predict and provide” approach to airport capacity. That cannot be sensible. If we all took that view of public investment we would be building new roads, houses and hospitals by the hour.
Nor does Davies explain how the market forces that make him so favourable to Heathrow marry the concerns of indicative planning. If we do mean to push London eastwards, should we not say so now, and plan infrastructure accordingly? If Davies can contemplate forcing airlines to go to the Thames estuary (which none of them wants to do), why not force them to leave Heathrow for Stansted? That airport cost a fortune in blood and money, and is standing half-empty.
The truth is that Britons are fascinated by glamorous projects essentially for the rich. Recent governments have granted the extravagant new Crossrail to the City of London, an underused HS1 to Paris, a business-class HS2 to Birmingham, a U-turn on Heathrow, and wind subsidies for wealthy landowners. When the beneficiaries claim that this loot is not for them but for “UK plc”, the chancellor, George Osborne, seems to go weak at the knees, and his trade secretary colleague, Vince Cable, bursts into tears of gratitude. Poor people’s infrastructure, such as buses, new roads, rail upgrades and urban renewal, is cut instead.
Cameron’s initial U-turn to put Heathrow back in play was a classic of this syndrome, capitulating to the toughest corporate lobby of recent times. It seems to have met its match in the greater forces of political inertia. Half a century of inquiry has sought new runways for London, while Birmingham, Manchester and other airports have quietly expanded. Each new outburst of London airport hysteria sends politicians running for the hills of indecision. After Tuesday, those hills are more crowded than ever.
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