Britain is a small island with intricate planning laws, a romantic vision of the countryside, and incessant infrastucture needs – and the three are an awkward join. This misfit helps to explain why Britain has been so slow, under successive governments, to build sufficient nuclear capacity – to the point where National Grid has to search for ingenious means of keeping the lights on each winter – and why construcing major road extensions can be hard going: remember Twyford Down. The Coalition at least rolled its sleeves up and took some decisions, even if they weren’t necessarily the right ones. We need the end of more nuclear provision, but the Government’s means are dubious: George Osborne’s Chinese deal. And the HS2 plan is higgledy-piggledy. It surely makes sense to take one’s airport expansion decision first, and then put any high speed rail link in place, rather than the other way round.
Which leads us to this morning’s news. Thirty Conservative MPs have written to David Cameron demanding a third runway at Heathrow – a view consistent with the conclusions of the Davies Commission, which “unanimously concluded that the proposal for a new northwest runway at Heathrow Airport…presents the strongest case”. (It also believes that a Heathrow extended northern runway has pluses and minus, and that the Gatwick proposal is “feasible”).
The Prime Minister is in a bind. On the one hand, those 30 MPs represent a significant body of opinion on the Conservative backbenches, and the Chancellor views building at Heathrow sympathetically. On the other, Tory opinion in west London is, on the whole, against further expansion there. A clutch of marginal and perhaps not-so-marginal Commons, Assembly and council seats are at risk. Justine Greening is threatening to resign. Theresa Villiers is opposed. Boris Johnson has pronounced that “The third runway is a sham and a delusion and it will never happen.”
Above all, Zac Goldsmith has threatened to resign his Richmond seat and call a by-election if building at Heathrow gets the green light. This would present the weird spectacle of the Conservative candidate for the London Mayoralty having resigned his Commons seat as a Tory – one, admittedly, that might have a counter-intuitive electoral appeal (though a by-election in Richmond Park would be hazardous). David Cameron has promised a decision by the end of the year. And he has – never forget – a formal majority of only 12. Labour is divided. Sadiq Khan, who once supported expansion, is now opposed to it. Any guesses why?
Under the circumstances, the Prime Minister could be forgiven for using the cloak of the Volkswagen emissions scandal to cover a tactical retreat until after May – though this would provide another illustration of how big British infrastructure decisions move at a snail’s rather than a plane’s pace. Arguably, Heathrow should never have been built where it stands: the issues raised by having planes flying directly over our capital city are legion. But since it is in place, another runway looks like the least worst option – until one starts to consider airport expansion over the longer-term. If (and it is an if), Britain needs a single major hub airport with yet more runways in future, Heathrow won’t be able to take the strain – in which case, Boris Island, or some variant of it east or north of London (or both), is worth taking seriously, despite the practical questions, environmental worries, political issues…and humongous cost.