The ministers stopping Britain from taking off
Why should anyone take the coalition’s growth rhetoric seriously when plans for airport expansion have been shelved?
Does anyone now remember Plane Stupid, or any of that gaggle of shrill UK climate protesters who opposed then prime minister Gordon Brown’s proposals to build a third runway at Heathrow airport? In fact, they opposed the existence of pretty much any airport. A particular target was Stansted in Essex, where, in the eyes of the protesters, uncultured chavs and the working-class masses needlessly fly to Prague and Spain for stag dos and boozy holidays.
Such protests, always more contemptuous of public opinion than representative of it, now seem like a distant memory. Not even the most delusional of the remaining rump of climate-change activists could claim to have much of a purchase on the zeitgeist. Now the only groundswell of opposition to the building of new airports comes from NIMBY protesters concerned about the potential increase in noise caused by more flights.
What, then, is preventing the coalition government from tackling the UK’s terminal lack of airport capacity? (Such is the extent of the problem that the country faces losing its status as an international airport hub.) In fact, following last week’s announcement that a long-awaited consultation on airport expansion had once again been delayed, government ministers even seem reluctant to decide when to start making a decision. The best transport secretary Justine Greening could come up with is that before a consultation takes place, ‘stakeholders have to consider the “big picture”’, whatever that means.
‘Some argue that new capacity is needed immediately’, argues Greening, who attempts to play up the opposition by suggesting an equal weight of public opinion has it that there is ‘no need for additional capacity, either now or in the longer term’. While Greening’s active campaigning against the third runway at Heathrow revealed where she herself stood on the issue, it quickly turned out that the decision to put plans on ice came from the very top. According to the Financial Times, prime minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg decided that ‘the question of building new runways in the London area is too difficult for the coalition and final decisions should be delayed until after the 2015 election’. As Greening emphasises: ‘Any decisions on additional capacity would probably not deliver operational results before 2020.’
That such dithering and delaying is taking place is unsurprising given the coalition government’s hostility towards the expansion of airport capacity. Indeed, one of the government’s very first acts after taking power in 2010 was to scrap plans for the third runway at Heathrow – a bizarre move given the purported reason for the coalition was to tackle the economic crisis. While plans for a Norman Foster-designed ‘Boris Island’ airport in the less-populated Isle of Grain have been touted as a preferable alterative, this is currently still a pipe dream. It seems that Darren Caplan from the Airport Operator’s Association is on to something when he suggests, ‘the government is benefiting from a divide and rule approach’.
But, it should be asked, how exactly is the government actually benefiting from such a delay? Some estimate that should development of airport capacity not increase soon then, by 2021, the UK could be losing £8.5 billion a year, and up to £100 billion over the next 20 years. Business will instead go to France or Germany, both of which already have airports with four runways. Given such arguments, surely Greening can recognise that the argument could be won to gain, as she puts it, ‘sufficient support [for a third runway], particularly at a political level’.
The obstacles to airport expansion certainly aren’t technological. In an inspiring Evening Standard interview recently, CK Ng, the director of operations at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport, spoke of how the airport was built on a manmade island in six years, even though engineers had to reclaim 1,248 hectares of land from the sea and transfer a massive 360million cubic metres of material to complete the project. Elsewhere, work is currently beginning in Beijing on what will become the world’s largest airport. It will be the size of Bermuda and home to a total of nine runways – three times the number of an expanded Heathrow. This is due to be completed by 2017 (contrast that with the 25-year timetable for building Boris Island, should such a project ever get the green light). Referring to Britain’s airport expansion, Ng suggests that the only barrier is political: ‘You’ve been talking about a third runway for about 20 years already’, he points out.
No one can deny that Heathrow is currently full to bursting point, with the UK’s other airports unable to pick up the slack. To argue that there is ‘no additional need’ for airport capacity is to make a moral claim about the evils of the expansion of flying, rather than an empirical claim reflecting the reality faced by Britain’s airports. Whether Boris Island or a third and, indeed, fourth runway at Heathrow is desirable is an open question. But this is a question the coalition government appears afraid even to schedule a time to debate.