How I tire of the criticism and abuse directed at David Cameron. You expect the Opposition to misrepresent the facts, but when business leaders and Conservative backbenchers weigh in, using words like ‘hypocrite’ and ‘coward’ to the media, it’s different. I wonder if they have any idea how this plays out internationally, let alone in our own country beyond Westminster. Most people just see or hear a headline, which will stick in the mind and inevitably impact future voting intentions.
Do we really want a Corbyn-led government in 2020, and more Labour Police & Crime Commissioners and councillors elected locally next year? It’s about time those critics acknowledged that the economy is about more than their personal ambitions and what happens in the South-East.
Apart from the EU negotiations, latterly focus has been on Heathrow, and the decision to defer a decision for a further review– this time on the potential environmental impact of a third runway. This has been interpreted as ‘for political reasons’ by the sceptics, citing the forthcoming London Mayoral elections. Yet, for many of us, a deferral makes sense because a lot has changed since Howard Davies started his airport review three years ago, and we don’t understand why other options were dismissed.
Whilst Willie Walsh threatens to take British Airways’ business elsewhere, Boris Johnson has called for “bold, imaginative, new solutions” to the airport expansion dilemma.
Boris is not alone. Apart from those of us trying to get to business appointments, or for a weekend away who are regularly stuck in traffic jams on the M25, if Heathrow expansion goes ahead, residents across the region will have their lives blighted for generations. Not just during the complicated infrastructure works (costing billions and never likely to be delivered on time or on budget), but they will also have to put up with increased aircraft noise, not to mention the impact on their property prices.
It appears that passengers are not the priority after all; demand for another runway comes from the freight industry, which wants increased capacity. However, freight inevitably has to be transported around the country. So why does it have to be imported and exported via London? Where the roads are already clogged up and there are concerns about diesel fumes and the impact on health?
Presumably, the answer is that the capital is the largest market for some incoming goods; that there are existing warehouses local to Heathrow, even if the road/rail infrastructure is inferior, which must increase costs and time delays when moving goods. Or maybe the reluctance to think afresh is simply due to the more usual “we’ve always done it this way and we don’t want to change”.
So, a “new solution” could be putting soon-to-be-redundant airfields in the regions to a new use. In the past, decommissioned airfields have become housing or industrial estates, often stunting wider economic growth (Ipswich is an example) and losing the opportunity for inward investment to create a high paid/ambitious jobs culture. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard people say, if only we hadn’t allowed that to happen!
However, all is not lost. In the last year, the USAF announced that it will be leaving the RAF’s wartime bomber base in Mildenhall, Suffolk, by 2022.
Employing 4,200 airmen and civilians, losing the base will have a disastrous impact on the local economy which offers limited alternative employment in this historic market town which was part of the post-War London overspill programme. On the edge of the Fens, just 10 miles from Newmarket and close to the A11,with easy access to Cambridge, it has two particular claims to fame: a 15th century market cross, and the ‘Mildenhall Treasure’, a 4th century hoard of Roman silver, now in the British Museum. Despite its advantages, the town has never lived up to expectations, but the time is right for it to make real progress if only the Heathrow expansion advocates would open their minds to a viable alternative.
With the support of the local MP, Matt Hancock, the local council has just received a £230,000 grant to review the future, one option being an international airport, subject to the RAF’s future plans.
Residents are used to heavy aircraft, and consequently unlikely to resist commercial expansion.
Given the location, it would be convenient for racehorses to be flown around the world, and there would be major advantages for the freight industry in having easier access across the country and to Felixstowe port (for any onward transmission to the continent and across the globe). There is plenty of space to create new, efficient warehousing, and salaries are lower than in the London area; housing is also cheaper.
For the government, costs would also be lower and it would be easier and quicker to deliver the additional capacity. Local road and rail improvements connecting the Eastern region to the Midlands and North (as well as London) are long overdue in any event, so there would be a dual benefit from the investment. Funds could also be made available for grants or loans to support the freight industry to review their business models and develop the new warehousing/transport hubs. In return, the local council would have increased business rates and the Treasury would benefit from higher tax income as more jobs were created, and the benefits budget declined.
Such development would also boost further private investment in a region already renowned for its world class scientific and technical research, especially in the agricultural and medical sectors, with innovations which would benefit not just the UK economy, but help emerging economies and poor countries desperate to improve healthcare and to feed their populations.
Unlike its neighbours in Essex and Norfolk, Suffolk doesn’t have a commercial airport, which has had a seriously detrimental impact on its growth. Mildenhall could change that, and improve so many lives.