In Opposition during the last Parliament, the Conservative Party made a trio of disastrous mistakes. The first two were supporting green taxes on energy and committing to match Labour’s spending plans.
The third was pledging to oppose a third runway at Heathrow.
Made purely for tactical reasons, the policy has caused strategic chaos.
If the Government’s message is about “winning the global race”, then ensuring we have sufficient airport capacity to handle the necessary tourist, business and hub transfer traffic ought to be an essential step towards doing so.
Instead, we refuse to take the necessary steps, while the French, Dutch and Germans race ahead of us. The South East will run out of airport capacity at some point in the next 15 years. The UK as a whole has already run out of hub capacity.
Consider the Prime Minister flying to China only a couple of weeks ago, cap in hand, to ask for them to invest in Britain. His diplomacy will do little to change the fact that Britain has a lower market share of flights to mainland China than Schiphol, Frankfurt or Paris Charles de Gaulle.
The French capital now welcomes ten times more Chinese visitors than London each year as a direct result. That skews the pitch against British firms signing deals with Chinese investors.
Or think of the Chancellor, coming up with ways to stimulate business investment. Private sector investors are queuing up to fund a major national infrastructure project – but the Government’s opposition to Heathrow expansion forbids them from doing so.
Even HS2, for which so much political blood is being spilled, is currently being planned without the knowledge of where the hub airport of the future will be located. With the route mapped out while the Government delays an airport decision, it seems likely that it won’t run through the point of arrival for most of our foreign visitors. The sight of billions of pounds worth of high speed trains zooming past a new runway while those landing have no chance to board will be farcical – but it will also be costly.
In short, a decision made to target some of West London’s voters in 2010 harms the wider national interest and leaves the Conservative Party’s economic messages ringing hollow today.
A new runway is not going to solve all our problems, nor is it going to be universally popular. But it is a feasible way to stave off a crisis which is already upon us.
Heathrow is not in the perfect position, that’s true (though unlike Boris Island, it is at least on the same side of London as most of the UK’s population). We aren’t building a nation from scratch, and we must adapt to what previous generations have left for us – whether they were foresighted or not.
Noise is a problem for a lot of people. But new technology is reducing the volume of modern planes at a remarkable rate, and policies such as yesterday’s compensation proposal from the IEA may help to make up for it. We still hear far too little about the huge economic benefits Heathrow brings to West London, though steps are afoot for a grassroots campaign to give a voice to the 114,000 people whose jobs depend on it.
Eventually, there may well be a need for more new capacity than just one runway. Perhaps, in the medium term, we will need to build a whole new airport or expand more of the existing sites in the South East. But that is no argument for inaction now, when we are already falling behind our international competitors.
There are other things that must be done to improve our international connections, too – like simplifying the visa process, allowing competition in landing charges or suggesting border officials bother to smile and say hello, for example.
All these things are true. But it remains the case that without the tarmac on which extra planes can land, at the most appropriate site, Britain will lose out more and more on the tourism and trade we urgently need.
The Davies Commission’s interim report has today shortlisted two options for Heathrow expansion and a new runway at Gatwick, which shows its chairman is a sensible man, but it remains a delaying action on the part of the politicians who set it up.
It will be another year before fans of a Thames Estuary airport find out if it is still in the running – and there will be another year of uncertainty after that. We shouldn’t be waiting years for technocrats to come up with a proposal – our elected representatives ought to face up to the problem and start taking decisions.
The Conservative Party has hung its hat on global competitiveness, economic growth and taking the necessary decisions to turn the country round. A new runway at Heathrow, as soon as possible, is essential to achieving all three aims.