A Transport Revolution? Don’t Bet on It

Take-off from London Heathrow (Source: Benson Kua)Take-off from London Heathrow (Source: Benson Kua)

“The biggest road building program since the Romans”, the “most extensive overhaul of our railways since the Victorians” and “modern aviation fit for the modern world”.

Sound familiar? These are just some of the bold claims politicians have pedalled over the years about the need to modernise transport infrastructure in the UK. Unsurprisingly, the reality has rarely managed to live up to this hyperbolic bluster and rhetoric.

But behind the political point scoring and narrow partisanship, there lies a serious point. Last week, we were told what has long been suspected: UK aviation is falling behind its international competitors.  Dubai is now the busiest airport in the world, a position Heathrow had enjoyed for over 70 years. And bosses at BAA suggest this is just the beginning – aggressive competition from Frankfurt and Paris threatens to seize from London the position as a European aviation hub too.

The problem with pushing through airport expansion, as is so often the case, is that the politics and economics sit uncomfortably beside one another. As such, national interests are made subservient to local resistance and shallow political expediency.

The Debate

Superficially, the issue of Heathrow expansion looks like a no brainer. The airport is currently operating at 99% capacity and requires major investment to meet burgeoning demand from the Far East and China.

The British Chambers of Commerce have suggested that expansion would bring £30 billion worth of economic benefits to the UK economy by 2080. This is not to mention the 68,000 new jobs that would be created for local people.

Advocates of a third runway say that the airport is bursting at the seams: it should be a case of when, not if, expansion will happen.

But Heathrow, unlike, say, Gatwick, is not located in the under-populated, leafy suburbs. It is in the heart of West London and surrounded by densely populated towns – many of which will be battlegrounds for the election in May.

A third runway would mean schools and houses being demolished, more carbon emissions, noise pollution and misery for hundreds of thousands of Londoners. David Cameron visited all the constituencies that would be affected by Heathrow expansion back in 2010 and made one of his “no ifs, no buts” promises to the electorate: there will be no third runway in the next parliament under a Conservative government.

So as a result of this arguing, pre-election bribing and procrastination, there seems to be a bitter stalemate. The debate has been kicked into the long grass once again, with little hope of a decision being reached by the end of the decade, let alone so much as an inch of tarmac being laid.

Political Footballs

In a Newsnight Interview this week, Ed Balls rightly argued that “we [the politicians] should stop prevaricating over airport expansion.” He went on to say that the debate over a third runway at Heathrow had been “going on for thirty years” which has been “damaging for UK business and harmful to the economy as a whole.”

But while the Shadow Chancellor may gesture at the need for decisive action, there is little evidence that a cross-party agreement will be reached. With just under 100 days until voters go to the polls in what is one of the most tightly contested General Elections in modern history, there is likely to be little progress before May. No doubt the Conservatives will try and use their manifesto as a way of ensuring that marginal constituencies in West London are not lured into the hands of the Liberal Democrats, whose opposition to airport expansion is well known, or worse still for the Conservatives, UKIP.

Aviation expansion, like the NHS, is being used as a political football. Investment in major projects that are clearly in the national interest inevitably falls victim to populist short termism. The transport system requires proper reform and investment, but, like the NHS, housing and so money other things, politicians use sticking plasters to placate voters and leave the problem for some other government ten years down the line.

Ultimately, the benefits of modernising infrastructure, both financially and practically, will accrue predominantly for future generations, and often at the expense of the current generation. When Victorian engineers uprooted half of London’s East End to lay sewers and an underground railway system, they were servicing future needs largely at their own short-term expense.

As such, decisions over critical infrastructure should not, and inevitably cannot, be taken within the remit of one parliament. As Ed Balls said, they require cross-party commitment. The Airports Commission and consultation exercises are designed to depoliticise the issue of aviation expansion. Manifestly this has not happened – politicians can’t resist meddling and interfering for political gain.

A third runway at Heathrow, expansion of Gatwick, a floating airport in the Thames Estuary, or even all of the above – I don’t really mind. But politicians of all colours need to reach a consensus in the national interest.

We can mostly all agree that airport capacity in the South East is unfit for purpose. If London is to remain a European hub and is to continue to service the expanding demands of the global economy, then an expansion of landing space is urgently needed.

The question still remains: is there is a politician with the conviction and prescience to drive through what would inevitably be an unpopular project? I wouldn’t bet on it anytime soon.