The UK economy can’t take off without airports. But the modern British Disease – Planning Panic – once again stops us from taking the bold decisions we need to secure future growth.
A global interconnected economy like Britain’s won’t survive and thrive without air links: to established markets, and the emerging growth centres of Asia and South America.
Still (just) the world’s busiest international airport, Heathrow makes it easy for the world to do business in Britain. But Heathrow today operates at 98% capacity – and there’s no room for critical new trade routes already served by the hub’s rapidly-expanding Frankfurt and Paris rivals.
This is a strategic issue where government needs to take a lead. But so far the debate at government-level has been bogged-down over the question of a third runway for Heathrow. Yesterday, transport shadow Angela Eagle got in line with the coalition by ruling out Heathrow expansion on environmental grounds.
Labour’s move is welcome if – and only if – it moves the debate onto the bigger question of air capacity in South East England. This needs to start by admitting there’s nowhere to go with Heathrow: the airport is hemmed-in by housing, factories, motorways and fly-time restrictions. The millions living under the flight path (and yes I have an interest here, I am one of them) already put up with an almost 24/7 roar of overhead traffic.
Two options for expansion are floated. One – “Heathwick” – proposes a ‘virtual hub’ linking Heathrow and Gatwick together with a high-speed rail link. Travellers could fly into Gatwick and then travel 35 miles to their connecting flight at Heathrow. This messy British compromise has achieved the seemingly impossible, uniting IAG’s Willie Walsh and Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary in condemnation. You don’t need to be an airline boss to see the potential for problems: making flight connections is stressful enough without factoring in a cross-town train-transfer.
The other option – nicknamed “Boris Island” after the London Mayor gave full-throated (but now seemingly equivocal) support – would see a man-made island created in the Thames Estuary east of London. Costed, perhaps optimistically, at £40bn Boris Island would serve 150 million passengers a year (versus Heathrow’s current 60 million+ passengers), become the globe’s biggest air-hub and send a clear message to the world that Britain means business.
In these times of austerity, the Treasury and Transport Secretary Philip Hammond are sceptical about a proposal that would add billions to the nation’s maxed-out credit card. There are the predictable reactions from the green lobby, and some of the scheme’s prospective neighbours are understandably less than positive. But Boris Island is exactly the kind of visionary game-changing investment we need to keep Britain at the hub of the world’s air network, and the heart of the global economy.
Traditionally, Britain muddles through and hopes for the best. But this time wishing the issue away is not going to work. On our crowded island we need to make grown-up decisions about how we plan for future growth. And with London’s continental rivals already in the lead on air expansion, we need clear leadership from the government now. We don’t need more Planning Panic: we need action on airports.
AFTERTHOUGHT: good to see that others (Daily Telegraph leader, 3rd November) agree…