Sunday, 18 January 2009

Heathrow Third Runway

On the domestic front the decision last week to go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow was the really big story. Right at the outset I want to make clear my opposition to it. Now I've never had the misfortune to pass through Heathrow but when anyone talks about having to use our main airport it's pretty clear that they don't relish the thought of being there. Part of the problem is historical - what seemed like a decent enough idea straight after the second world war to use this ex military airfield is now, more than 60 years later, seen as a mistake. Bad enough with the colossal number of flights coming in and circling over the nation's capital but if Gordon Brown has his way that aspect will get much much worse.

One of the things that gets to me is the "promise" by the government that only planes passing certain environmental criteria will use 'Runway 3' and that the number of flights using it will be well below its theoretical capacity. This promise is absolutely WORTHLESS! Why? Governments have form on this: every promise previously made regarding the number of terminals to be built at Heathrow has been broken and every promise about the maximum number of flights at Heathrow has been broken (this has happened several times by the way). Bear in mind too that the most optimistic completion date is 2020 and it is unlikely to say the least that Messrs Brown and Hoon will be in government to answer for their decisions at that date.

Let's move on to the matter of jobs. This of course is why the unions are so enthusiastic about Runway 3. But what a pathetic smokescreen. The huge sum of money required for the development could be used instead for other much needed infrastructure; for example a series of lagoons in the Severn Estuary for power generation (reckoned to be cheaper and better than a barrage) and/or new high speed rail links. I think that these might generate some jobs don't you. As far as UK plc is concerned yes aviation has been a huge asset to the economy but that doesn't mean that there aren't other things that can play their part in maintaining our economic wellbeing.

An enlarged Heathrow is needed for business users is another cry. This doesn't really wash because many passengers using Heathrow are not business people. Much better surely to disperse these latter to the other airports around London and make better use of our rail system where practicable. And with the mind boggling changes that are occurring as part of the communications revolution will so much business travel really be needed even with the additional trade that we will do with the likes of China and India.

One of the outcomes of what happened last week is that we all now know where Sipson is. This is the community that will be obliterated by a third runway. Something like 700 homes will go, a school, church, the whole village. All for very dubious reasons.

Why has Brown made the decision on the runway right now? It would be of absolutely no surprise if it was for purely political motives like so much of what he blatantly does. Perhaps he wants to look decisive rather than dithering, perhaps he thinks it will make him look good both from the points of view of business leaders and of the unions. I'm pretty sure that he doesn't have any genuine interest in the environment. Perhaps he thinks it will make him look more pro-business than the Tories at a time when business needs support. He must know that there were going to be one or more judicial challenges, that short of getting an overall majority at the next general election the whole scheme will almost certainly get stopped in its tracks. But wasting money isn't something that keeps Gordon awake at night, it's political manoeuvring that drives him.

Before leaving this subject there is a very fundamental matter to be considered, one I have yet to mention. This country, no doubt in common with many others, has an absolute love affair with transport in its different forms. We just love to travel about. Part of this it has to be said is because families have got increasingly split up in the geographical sense. And it's not just that one's relatives have moved to other areas of this country, there are plenty of families split between different countries, continents even. (To be clear this is not a totally new phenomenon, plenty of Cornish miners moved abroad when their local mines closed leaving families back here, it's Whittle's invention of the jet engine leading to cheap air travel that has enabled relatives to meet up at a frequency not really possible before). Up until now our desires for ever increasing travel opportunities have been answered - need more motorways, we'll build them, cheap package holidays abroad, again no problem we'll build more airports or enlarge what we have got. The argument about the third runway might just prove to be a defining moment for us. This is a crowded country and the question needs to be asked: how much more large infrastructure do we want to absorb. My feeling is that we shouldn't be building more runways, end of story. Making better use of the existing runway capacity in the country as a whole is another matter.

We have already started to see some disincentives to use the car so much, an example being congestion charges whilst general road charging is also being examined. The senior citizens bus pass is also helping people look at an alternative to the car. But flights are (mostly) different. The reason is that for the majority of trips between different countries flying is the one practical means of travel. Inevitably there are grey areas, for instance if I wanted to get to Scotland in a hurry from here I might be tempted to fly but I would be using underemployed airports in this instance rather than bursting at the seams Heathrow. On the other hand London to Paris would be the Eurostar train rather than flying for me.

So far as flying is concerned the question that the country has to ask is have we got to a stage where we say "enough is enough" or do we reckon that there is nothing wrong in letting aviation expand without limit. It is a subject that should surely be discussed.

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