Left at the gate when it comes to Heathrow

8th September, 2012

‘The removal of Justine Greening as transport secretary and the appointment of Patrick McLoughlin as her successor has been widely interpreted as paving the way for the Conservatives to perform a U-turn on Heathrow’
Financial Times, September 5

Let me get this straight: 12 cabinet positions have been reshuffled, but this is basically about Heathrow?
You’re not imagining it. The issue on the table is a third runway at the airport. Justine Greening was implacably opposed to the idea, so she had to be moved.
Over her dead body, and all that.
Indeed. And over her constituency in west London, more to the point. The new chap is afraid of flying but since his constituency is in Derbyshire he may feel less anxious about several hundred new flights a day over west London.
But why did Ms Greening have to go? Doesn’t the government share her implacable opposition?
The Liberal Democrats are implacably opposed; Tories such as Zac Goldsmith and Boris Johnson are implacably opposed. Others are more placably opposed, or perhaps not opposed at all – the prime minister seems to be manoeuvring to support a third runway in the next Conservative manifesto.
The Labour party must be rubbing its hands at the confusion.
It is no better. The party sucked its thumbs on the subject for half a decade before finally approving a third runway. Ed Miliband, a minister at the time, bravely considered resigning and didn’t. And now Labour has changed its mind and opposes the runway.
Can’t these clowns just make up their minds?
Well, a decision was due just before the Olympic Games but it was then postponed.
I don’t remember that.
Well, it was a while ago. I am thinking of the Beijing games. I am sure the British political classes can keep this business simmering away until Rio 2016 and beyond. They took 20 years to get Terminal 5 built, after all.
Why is this such a slippery issue?
Partly because any decision to act carries considerable short-term costs, regardless of any long-term benefits. Even a rapid decision would be too late for a construction boom to stimulate the economy, and some future government could cut the ribbon in 2020 or so.
Don’t be too sure that it would be too late to stimulate the economy. You might have said the same thing back in 2008, and if politicians had pulled their fingers out then we might have been pouring concrete by now.
You have a point. But this isn’t just about timing. It’s about sorting out competing priorities, and none of the options seem attractive.
What’s wrong with the third runway?
Heathrow is on a cramped site, so even with a third runway it could hardly compete with competitors in Europe: Frankfurt and Paris have four runways, for instance. The flight paths run over highly populated areas, meaning that out of all EU citizens suffering from airport noise pollution, almost 30 per cent have Heathrow to thank for their pains.
Then there’s this crazy plan to build an airport to the east of London.
Starting again from scratch sounds insane but actually there is a history of building big airports in unlikely places: air travel has grown so spectacularly that many older airports carry too heavy a legacy. I am fond of Osaka’s Kansai airport, built out at sea and reached by an artificial causeway. But the new airport would be expensive, probably not ready for decades, and would require huge infrastructure spending just to be convenient for London. How it might be made handy for the rest of south-east England is anyone’s guess. It might also disrupt bird life.
Can’t we just make Heathrow work better?
We could try. There’s a fundamental contradiction, though. The logic of air travel says the bigger a hub airport is, the better, because that gives the best choice of destination. But the logic of competition says London might benefit from a rivalry between two hub airports.
Perhaps we should just do nothing and let Heathrow grind to a halt.
That is a popular alternative with environmentalists, who rightly worry about the carbon emissions from air travel. But the truth is that choking Heathrow will just divert aeroplanes to Frankfurt or Paris. We need a sensible policy to contain the environmental costs of flying, but this isn’t it.
Gosh. It is a conundrum.
This is the sort of complex, multifaceted problem that exists to be solved by the, ahem, political process. Don’t hold your breath.


First published in the Financial Times.

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