Why progress remains stuck on the tarmac

The dithering over building a third runway at Heathrow, never mind new airports, exposes our leaders’ inability to seize control of the future.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

Do you remember what one of the first, headline acts of the current coalition government was? That’s right, on 12 May 2010, just days after the Lib Dems and Conservatives false-smiled their way into a loveless marriage, the freshly conjugated coalition announced it was to abandon New Labour plans to build a third runway at Heathrow airport. So after the idea was first mooted in a government green paper in 2003, it appeared, after years of Labour dithering before a last-gasp decision in 2009, that the prospect of an improved Heathrow had finally been shot down.

But this is a twenty-first century British government. There is no decision that cannot be unmade, no action that cannot be delayed for years upon end. Uncertainty is near enough deemed an electoral virtue by the modern political party. So, nine years after the idea was first mooted, senior Tories are now, almost predictably, suggesting that plans for a third runway might be revived after all.

The leaked murmurings began earlier this year when chancellor George Osborne said that Britain needed to confront the problem of the lack of runways. Since then, several Tories have come out of the closet wearing ‘I love runway’ t-shirts. Just last week, voluble housing minister Grant Shapps came over all Victorian: ‘As a great trading nation we need to have sufficient numbers of ports to get people and goods in and out.’ And then, more memorably, came senior Tory Tim Yeo, chairman of the energy and climate change select committee. ‘An immediate go-ahead for a third runway will symbolise the start of a new era, the moment the Cameron government found its sense of mission. Let’s go for it’, chirruped Yeo in a piece for the Telegraph. He then challenged Cameron personally, asking him if he is ‘man or mouse’.

Man or mouse? That’s a difficult one for a contemporary politician. One suspects Cameron will respond by saying it is a complex question to which there are no easy answers, before promising a consultation on the question, which will subsequently be delayed until after the next election.

Because that is the thing about the endless dithering and prevarication encapsulated by the question of whether to build a third runway at Heathrow. It is underwritten by a profound willingness to evade the future, to avoid making a decision that will have consequences. Governmental responsibility is seemingly there either to be outsourced to the private sector or to be simply shirked entirely.

There should be no doubt that the case for a third runway, indeed for a massive expansion of Britain’s airport capacity, is there to be made. Although currently one of the busiest airports in the world, Heathrow is virtually at peak capacity. Yet, London – the city Heathrow principally serves – has, according to one expert, ‘fewer weekly flights than any other European capital to half of the world’s emerging markets… There are already 1,000 more flights a year to China’s three largest cities from Paris and Frankfurt than from Heathrow.’ And as the markets in Asia or South America grow, so the need to be able communicate and trade with them becomes ever-more paramount. Little wonder that a report commissioned by airport-owner BAA argues that the UK stands to lose £14 billion during the next decade if Heathrow is not expanded. Add to this the jobs created by a major infrastructure project such as expanding the UK’s airport capacity, and the economic case for airport expansion is strong.

Of course, there are counter arguments against, and constituencies of opinion opposed to, airport expansion in general. Environmentalist and now Tory MP Zac Goldsmith has even promised to leave the country if a third runway is built (which is surely as good a reason as any to get the thing constructed). Others, just as green hued as Goldsmith, such as the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, have talked about the dangers of rising carbon emissions from increased air travel, citing ‘sustainability’ and ‘ecological limits’, while the Guardian’s resident environmental columnist has accused third-runway advocates of being ‘mad’ and ‘in denial’.

While accusing those one disagrees with of being mentally ill is clearly the argument of a scoundrel, the sustainability and natural limits arguments can easily be taken on. For a start, man, in the process of mediating his natural environment, has always overcome what may appear to be natural limits. In air travel, for instance, there is considerable excitement around the prospect of biofuelled as opposed to petrol-fuelled flights – several successful test flights have already been conducted. And for those like Lucas who claim biofuels are the source of world hunger, with food crops being turned into fuel crops, it’s worth remembering, as a couple of scientists in Nature magazine do, that it is not biofuel production that is the problem, but inefficient food production. The answer, they contend, is to raise agricultural productivity, not blame the biofuel industry: ‘Most parts of Africa have plenty of land that could be productive while under-development fuels hunger’. In fact, they continue, biofuel production could provide those living in less developed regions of the world both with a purpose for land unsuited to food production and a potential means of economic growth.

Then there are the so-called Nimbys living in areas likely to be affected by increased noise pollution due to airport expansion. Yet here the problem is not so much the existence of a minority of people who might well be averse to more planes flying over their gardens. Rather more significant is the use of the often-talked-about-but-rarely-seen Nimby by politicians looking for an excuse not to have to make a decision.

After all, what a government does will not please everyone. That is the nature of making decisions that affect a lot of people; that, in short, is the nature of governing. And it is something with which twentieth-century politicians, as part of mass political parties with genuine social roots, were quite willing to reckon. Hence they were able to build and plan new towns, construct roads, and, yes, create the original Stansted, Gatwick and Heathrow.

But this government, like its New Labour predecessors, lacks the will and authority to seize control of the future. Instead of making decisions that will affect us, it is content to issue statements and promise consultations that might impress us. Instead of acting on behalf of the public, a contemporary government merely wants to relate to it. It is the triumph of public relations over politics, of saying things rather than doing things. While this approach may well win a few extra votes at an imminent election, in the long run we all lose out, be it in the form of a dilapidated energy network, a crumbling housing stock or indeed a decrepit, queue-packed set of airports.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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