Another great piece by Simon Jenkins on why the UK does not need another runway, but better roads and rail instead
Date added: June 7, 2016
Simon Jenkins, writing in the Evening Standard, says David Cameron should focus on improving the country’s railways and roads, rather than adding a runway. He asks of Cameron: “Is 2016 to be megaproject Armageddon?” …”We need constantly to remember a crucial fact about London’s airports. They have next to nothing to do with “business and industry” and the much-vaunted UK plc. ” ….”But when the Airports Commission was set up, Heathrow hurled the kitchen sink of lobbying at it, and won the day.” … “Heathrow is full or, as the planners put it, “at capacity”. But then so is Waterloo, so is Victoria, so is the M25, so is every London hospital, school and prison. Big, booming cities are always at capacity. That is why resources must be planned sensibly. Roads, railways, hospitals and schools are more crucial to the prosperity and welfare of the capital than the convenience of tourists, important though they may be.” … [Cameron] clearly does not regard the pressure on Heathrow as being critical to the economy. He is right. There is no overriding reason for London to have a giant “hub” airport.” …”If Cameron really wants to help the British economy with mega-infrastructure, every survey shows that the best value for money is from improving commuter railways and building better roads.” Lots of great points in the full article ….
Forget Brexit, for a moment. London will survive and prosper, whichever way the referendum goes. I am not so sure about what is about to be decided on Heathrow. London’s runway wars are rumoured to be coming to a head. Will David Cameron rat on his pledge of “no third Heathrow runway, no ifs, no buts”? Will he admit that HS2 was only backed because it was seen as an alternative to Heathrow, not an add-on? Is 2016 to be megaproject Armageddon?
We need constantly to remember a crucial fact about London’s airports. They have next to nothing to do with “business and industry” and the much-vaunted UK plc. They are about leisure and tourism. Some 80 per cent of air travellers in and out of London are not classed as “businessmen”, and even those who claim this elevated title are probably on freebie jaunts. Heathrow’s lobbyists know tourism is not politically sexy, and so they present their customers as high-powered IT salesmen, widget manufacturers and entrepreneurs. They do not like to admit that the overwhelming bulk of air travel is optional, and for pleasure.
We should also remember that we have been here before, and have the bloodstained T-shirts to prove it. The last great battles over London runway capacity, in the Seventies and Eighties, supposedly resolved it “for all time”. The greatest brains in Whitehall, economists, geographers and planners, put their heads together and made a decision. It was that London’s third airport should be preferably east or north of city, and more distant from the centre. No civilised city would have a vast airport over a populated area, as is Heathrow.
The decision was Stansted. It was built. The airlines initially hated it because they all wanted to be together at Heathrow. No one built a high-speed rail link to it, so Stansted is now half empty. But it still makes planning sense. It is ideally located for the reviving economy of east London and the London-Cambridge corridor. As recently as 2008, the then owner, the British Airports Authority, planned for it to grow bigger than Heathrow. It was the future, the question answered.
Only when Gordon Brown absurdly decided to sell Stansted to Manchester airport, “to promote competition” — he was the last true Thatcherite — did a furious BAA revert to lobbying for Heathrow. It came up against a fierce alliance of Gatwick and west London constituency MPs. This led to Cameron’s 2010 “no ifs, no buts” pledge to relieve Heathrow of further doubt. But when the Airports Commission was set up, Heathrow hurled the kitchen sink of lobbying at it, and won the day.
Heathrow still has serious enemies. The first is the airport’s old ally, British Airways, which now realises that the landing charges required for a third runway are going to soar by 50 per cent. Willie Walsh, chairman of International Airlines Group, BA’s parent company, has clearly fallen out of love with Heathrow expansion. He has said bluntly: “We didn’t ask for it and we’re not going to pay for it.”
Meanwhile, pollution levels in the west London/Heathrow area have become an issue. They are not just killing people: worse, they are embarrassing ministers. No one can show how an extra burst of airplane and associated vehicle exhausts can be anything but illegal under global clean-air regulations. A third runway would make Volkswagen’s fiddles look like minor misdemeanours.
Heathrow is full or, as the planners put it, “at capacity”. But then so is Waterloo, so is Victoria, so is the M25, so is every London hospital, school and prison. Big, booming cities are always at capacity. That is why resources must be planned sensibly. Roads, railways, hospitals and schools are more crucial to the prosperity and welfare of the capital than the convenience of tourists, important though they may be.
And why should Heathrow claim precedence? The days of “predict and provide” are over. If demand for infrastructure were to dictate its supply, the sky would be the limit. We would all be paying the Government 80 per cent income tax and builders would be laughing the way to the bank.
Cameron has dithered and delayed. He clearly does not regard the pressure on Heathrow as being critical to the economy. He is right. There is no overriding reason for London to have a giant “hub” airport. In the age of the internet, speed of business travel is not a core economic lubricant.
Leisure passengers may find Stansted, Gatwick, Luton and elsewhere inconvenient. If so, they can use coaches, cars, trains or lesser point-to-point airports. Or they can stay at home. None of these options will cripple the economy. If Cameron really wants to help the British economy with mega-infrastructure, every survey shows that the best value for money is from improving commuter railways and building better roads.
There is no great cost in Cameron continuing to delay his decision — certainly as long as no one has any solution to London pollution. But if he feels he must do something he can honour his pledge to Heathrow’s residents. He can end their pain. He can give Gatwick, overwhelmingly a tourist airport, its runway. He can spend a fraction of the cost of Heathrow on a better rail link for Stansted.
Beyond that he can tell the airlines to make do with the capacity they have been given, and let higher prices and provincial airports take the pressure of further demand. It is not a difficult decision.
Also by Simon Jenkins:
Simon Jenkins: Don’t buy the idea that Heathrow expansion is ‘good for the nation’
By Simon Jenkins (Evening Standard)
The obvious place is in Hyde Park, near the Serpentine. It could take an aircraft movement every five minutes. It is just a boring bit of park, much of the year now used for commercial exhibitions and concerts. Nimbys should get real. Helicopters are about jobs, money and how to be a top city. London’s whole economic security depends on a Hyde Park heliport.
That is precisely the level of the argument for a third runway at Heathrow, on which a Government decision is said to be imminent. We may as well start at the beginning. It should be unthinkable in the aforementioned 21st century to inflict the noise, pollution and congestion of modern airplanes in a built-up area. Just forget it. New York, Paris, Moscow and Hong Kong don’t do it. Heathrow was only allowed to grow because gutless ministers dared not stand up to the airlines lobby.
The noise footprint over west London is already intolerable. Did no one from the pro-Heathrow Davies commission go and sit under it? In addition, we are only now starting to understand the health impact of exhaust poisons. Congestion on the roads into west London is equally bad. Endless pledges from the airlines of new, clean and silent planes are never delivered.
This has nothing to do with economics. The number of “businessmen” who really need to travel internationally is relatively small. A mere 30 per cent of Heathrow passengers are classed as business — it’s 20 per cent at Stansted and 18 per cent at Gatwick. I guess half these journeys are really perks. Every time you hear a Heathrow lobbyist plead that an extra runway would “generate up to £147 billion” or is “vital as a business hub”, blow a raspberry. It would probably be cheaper to provide every real businessman with a private jet into London City Airport or Northolt.
Heathrow is primarily for leisure travel, and that travel is overwhelmingly outbound. A new Heathrow runway is an aid to the foreign tourist industry, and as such is a bad trade deal and a disincentive to domestic tourism. Of course it would generate economic activity and jobs. So does all infrastructure. So would a heliport in Hyde Park. But it has nothing to do with “British exports”. Precisely the opposite.
We should have no truck with the archaic “predict and provide” line of the Davies report. Just because more people want an airport does not mean a runway must be built. More people want motorways but we do not build them. More people want houses. We can predict, but then we must plan how to respond. Demand is not God.
Air travel is overwhelmingly leisure travel, a modern luxury that needs no subsidy nor deserves planning privilege. Of course getting to Gatwick and Stansted (not to mention Luton and points north) is inconvenient for travellers but so is noise and pollution to those living near Heathrow. Nor would there be overcrowding at Heathrow if flights to leisure and domestic destinations were moved elsewhere. Such regulation would boost provincial airports and northern powerhouses. Nor is being “a European hub” essential to London. It is just profitable to airports.
The case for Heathrow ran out of steam long ago, and relies on crude politics. David Cameron remains stymied by having pledged to stop the third runway, “no ifs and buts”. Recent post-VW publicity for noxious fumes has added to the “health cost” of Heathrow — or, one could say, the death cost.
Then last summer Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airlines Group, owner of British Airways, stunned his Heathrow allies by deserting them on the grounds of cost. A new runway would mean a 50 per cent rise in landing fees for IAG’s passengers. “We didn’t ask for it and we’re not paying for it,” he said. I assume Walsh has worked out that the present Heathrow suits him fine, while opening it up to new competition would not.
Back in the Eighties the British government took its only bold decision on London airports in history. It built Stansted as the “third London airport”. It was to be the big future, located between London’s silicon roundabout and Cambridge’s silicon fen. All it lacked was a decent express train service to London. Since it did not get one, Stansted sits unpopular and half empty.
As recently as 2008 the British Airports Authority actually got the message on Heathrow, and proposed a radical plan to upgrade Stansted to the capacity of Heathrow. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown killed the idea dead by handing Stansted over to Manchester airport to run. A furious BAA said, in that case, it would lobby for a bigger Heathrow. The whole saga has been idiotic and wasteful, modern British government at its most incompetent.
A simple decision would be for Cameron to restore growth at Stansted and build a proper rail link. Or he could let Gatwick expand to become the premier tourism “hub”, though the future of air travel is said to lie in point-to-point journeys, not hubs.
Either way, a bigger Heathrow should be unthinkable. It should concentrate on business travel. Above all, the decision should be decided on a proper plan, not the Davies report’s attempt to reconcile competing lobbyists.
I have no trouble with corporations and capitalism but they must be subordinate to an overriding public interest and not mere money-chasing. Heathrow lobbyists can pretend that “what is good for Heathrow is good for the nation”. They can spout nonsense about helping exports and being the best in Europe. We just need to keep calm and remember, they are in it for the money. All else is hogwash.