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Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

With the UK population a fraction under 66 million, and growing, we are repeatedly told that we need more housing. So why are billions being spent blighting and destroying homes – and lives – in the most expensive parts of the country?

HS2’s property budget is being investigated by the National Audit Office (NAO), following revelations that detailed calculations for acquiring 11,000 properties for phase one from London to the West Midlands set the true cost at £4.7 billion, compared with the original estimate of £2.8 billion.

In documents seen by the Sunday Times, the former Head of Property states that the “official budget for buying land and buildings was based on rudimentary map based analysis by interns.” It is also alleged that “a large proportion of properties are not budgeted for”. The NAO is due to report shortly.

A third runway at Heathrow will also have a significant adverse impact, blighting residential neighbourhoods with increased noise and air pollution, as well as requiring some properties to be demolished – no doubt at a cost of billions.

The M25, already probably the busiest and most heavily congested road in the country will be seriously disrupted for years, adversely affecting business and increasing pollution whilst making parts of the capital and other areas difficult to access.

MPs recently voted to support a third runway, but without seeing a report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) which apparently warns that aviation and other emissions are growing so fast that they threaten the UK’s 80 per cent reduction target. Lord Deben, CCC Chairman, noted that higher emissions ‘would place an unreasonably large burden on other sectors’. This could affect private cars, buses and trains, as well as central heating boilers, gas cookers, wood-burning fires, and businesses.

Pollution is one reason why local authorities will be challenging the decision. A process which will inevitably take years, and cost millions in legal fees. Delays will also add millions to project costs in the event that the third runway eventually gets the go-ahead; although it is supposed to be privately funded, there will undoubtedly be something in the small print which requires the taxpayer to fund over-runs.

Whilst Heathrow currently estimates the bill for building the new runway at £14 billion, with related transport links projected at £4 billion by the Airports Commission, or over £15 billion (Transport for London), airlines fear costs could spiral to more than £20 billion, leaving them with zero confidence in the project being delivered on time, on budget.

Heathrow’s management has a questionable reputation for achieving best value, paying hundreds of millions more for a new multi-storey car park in 2010 compared with equivalents at airports elsewhere, and a smoking shelter coming in at £1m, more than double the quote. A new baggage system was five years late at a mere £435 million, compared with the original estimate of £234 million.

There are also allegedly questions about the airport’s ability to raise the necessary funds.

Ironically, the Competition Authority forced the breakup of the British Airports Authority (which included Heathrow) to promote rivalry between airports, recommending legislation to allow ‘separate development and ownership of terminals’.

So, isn’t it time to deliver on this ambition, and think more rationally to promote that rivalry?

There appear to be two fundamentals behind ‘demand’ for a third runway – to accommodate increased freight and to facilitate rising passenger numbers.

Apart from the disruption and pollution, there are two arguments to support an alternative approach to meet demand:

  • 38 RAF bases closed since 1995; not all have been redeveloped, so could any be potentially viable to create a major freight hub? Closure of USAF Mildenhall in Suffolk has been deferred until 2025 and should certainly be an option, since it handles large military aircraft and has 3,000 skilled staff to manage them safely. Local road and rail infrastructure improvements are overdue, and would benefit the whole economy at a fraction of the cost of a third runway at Heathrow. It would also have the advantage of creating more jobs in an economically challenged location and retain the airport for military use should the need ever arise. If the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had a partnership with the operators it could provide valuable income to support increased investment in defence at a time when the Minister is demanding extra funding;
  • Investing in regional airports, across the whole country could enable passengers to fly more conveniently and closer to home, without incurring the additional expense of using Heathrow, which can equate to the cost of a two week holiday, adding train fares, overnight accommodation, as well as extortionate parking charges.

Ryanair’s expansion into Southend Airport, adding another one million passengers annually, is an example of how good management (by Stobart) can revive a neglected facility. Expanding passenger capacity regionally would also benefit regional economies, increasing tourism and business investment.

With Brexit in turmoil and local authorities constantly articulating their frustration at yet more London-centric infrastructure investment, they should take this opportunity to work together beyond traditional county boundaries, with their Local Enterprise Partnerships and industry to develop a strong joint business case for their regional airports, highlighting the benefits of redirecting funding to achieve best value.

Areas where housing is cheap (compared with the south east) could attract young entrepreneurs in the tech sector, or to reinvigorate derelict sites as micro breweries, restaurants or hotels, or live-work accommodation. This is what Urban Splash have done in various locations around the country. Consider existing assets and pool resources: too many art and museum collections, which belong to the taxpayer, are in storage, libraries closing and public spaces neglected. Regional centres of excellence are proven to excite and engage local residents and attract visitors, as we can see from this year’s fantastic arts programme linking cities in the north east.

You need vision, determination and commitment to be successful – but what’s the alternative? Ignore the potential to do something different? With 900,000 under-25s unemployed, it’s small wonder that drug gangs are gaining momentum across the country, but focused regional partnerships could be a chance to revitalise areas yet to recover decades after losing their industrial base, with new jobs and a commitment to long-term upskilling. Incentivising young talent to stay, instead of allowing it to disperse and never return, means giving them real hope of being part of a thriving, affluent, ambitious community where owning their own home can be a reality, not merely a hopeless dream, never realised.

By taking the initiative to champion their own regional airports as viable alternatives to endless indecision on Heathrow, local authorities would also send a warning to politicians to listen to ‘ordinary’ people, and call time on poor procurement in the public sector.

16 comments for: Judy Terry: We need more housing. So why are billions being spent blighting and destroying homes?

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