Babz Normile works in London and is a Director of Conservatives for International Travel, a grassroots organisation campaigning for a change in party policy, away from opposition to aviation growth and towards support for mass travel. Here she responds to Tuesday’s article by Theresa Villiers regarding the support of some businesses for the party's opposition to Heathrow expansion.
It is rare for any large grouping of individuals or organisations to speak with one voice on a controversial matter. Therefore it should come as little surprise that some businesses oppose Heathrow expansion. But it would be foolhardy for the Shadow Cabinet to take this small collective of contrary voices to mean that most businesses oppose expansion or that expansion would somehow not be good for UK businesses. This would be to flagrantly ignore the many businessmen and business organisations that have vociferously and robustly argued the economic merits of expansion.
Conservatives for International Travel question many of the other arguments made by Ms Villiers in her recent article on this matter, but certain things do need to be pointed out above others.
The Shadow Secretary of State for Transport states that extra capacity at Heathrow may not lead to extra routes, and that popular existing routes may just increase in capacity. But if increased numbers of people are able to travel to places they want to go to, surely that is a good thing, not something to be held as evidence against expansion? When did the Conservative Party become the bulwark against consumer demand?
It also seems that Ms Villiers has taken a nuclear approach to airport expansion once again, by implying that aviation is fundamentally bad for the environment and, consequently, that when in government the Party should oppose any and all expansions of aviation capacity. This point seems to be backed by her former colleague from Brussels, Charles Tannock. In the last nine months the party has stated its opposition to expansion at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. But the messages become mixed when we see that it has stayed remarkably quiet on expansion at Luton, Manston and London City. Finally, the party has given more mixed messages on a Thames Estuary airport than on any other policy area. This is a disservice to the party’s credibility.
It seems that we are against specific airport expansion because of the ‘end of the world’ consequences on the environment, and yet also claim to be in favour of aviation in general. Are we somehow supportive of flying as a theory but not as a reality?
We have even back-tracked on the sell-off of Stansted and Gatwick, welcoming BAA having to sell the airports but condemning the motives of anyone wanting to buy. Most bizarrely, the future Secretary of State has taken pot shots at the UK's biggest airport operator. Would we take this reckless approach to defence policy or to education policy?
The party's policy in this area is ill-conceived and short-sighted. The UK needs a hub airport to ensure that when the economy has recovered, it is the best-placed country in Europe to capitalise on that recovery; yet our policy in this area seems to neglect that opportunity.
To many, the business case for airport expansion is self-evident. Hubs mean destinations, destinations mean access, access means investment, investment means growth. The increased investment opportunities of airport capacity expansion far outweigh the dubious environmental benefits of increasing the cost of air travel to millions of hard-working families and businesses. The intention appears to be one of deliberately pricing out all but the most wealthy.
It is interesting to note that in the Shadow Secretary of State’s article, there is no longer mention of high speed rail being a plausible replacement for a third runway at Heathrow (remember, the proposed Conservative high speed line stops at Leeds and replaces Heathrow runway 3, the Government’s proposed high speed line goes to Scotland and is in addition to runway 3). High speed rail is, of course, not without its own environmental costs; unlike airport expansion, the direct cost to the taxpayer is immense and the range of destinations served a great deal more limited, with little or no flexibility on this matter. Perhaps the limitations of this argument are now recognised.
If the party is serious about increasing business opportunity and putting the UK back on the runway to recovery, extra capacity in the South East is vital: a world-class hub airport is critical and high speed rail in the current proposed forms, as noted above, are something of a pipe dream.
As I wrote here a few months back, if you were locating a business in the US, Atlanta would be an excellent place to choose, as would Minneapolis St Paul, Detroit and Chicago. Why? They have hubs. The Conservatives need to get with the programme on airport capacity, and fast.