Brits love to sneer bitterly at China. Yet the unlikely bastion of global capitalism they have become in the era of Donald Trump certainly knows how to build infrastructure – and do so quickly.
Whether or not the dozens of airports, hundreds of shopping malls and millions of posh apartments China’s been funding with god-knows-how-much-debt will all be profitable is another matter. But with Britain hardly a step closer to a Third Runway – despite the Cabinet’s decision on 5 June to give it the go-head – any high ground seems to be delayed in the stack and getting us nowhere.
During my time at what was then BAA, we couldn’t have the Third Runway debate publicly. The U-turn in media opinion since has, to a large degree, been led by the prevailing winds of common sense. Enough wind, fog and snow have passed to show that you cannot have operational resilience without spare capacity, something Heathrow lacks.
Of course, there are very good reasons to oppose Heathrow expansion just as there are for and against Gatwick. Alistair Osborne’s column in The Times from 2015 was rather astute in predicting that Gatwick’s estate agents could find gainful new employment working on the baggage carousels.
My current role at Blackstock Consulting, the 13-person company I set up five years ago to advise real estate, infrastructure and investment companies in strategic communications, policy and crisis management, often touches the same ridiculous web of nonsense (the planning system) that could be about to entangle our only hub airport.
The main problem many people have with planning in Britain is that rather than be a system of pure democracy (decisions are not referenda to be decided by a popular vote), the regime is governed by the whims of the few. This allows decisions to often favour self-interest at the expense of the public good – something admittedly highly subjective.
Local politicians duly ignore policy and process to place their own views ahead of what’s right if they feel it may help re-election. As a result, tens of millions of pounds of public money is wasted each year in court when ridiculous decisions are overturned just so elected politicians can say they at least tried.
This was precisely what former transport secretary Justine Greening did when she told the BBC on 5 June that Britain no longer needed a hub and could instead function happily on point to point airports. Greening ignored the obvious point that without the economies of scale afforded by multiple feeder planes, transiting thousands of passengers from short-haul routes, the bingo ticket jumbos flying to the New York and Singapore would see their frequency shredded faster than a pigeon in the engine of an A380 super jet.
We need to stop playing politics with everything and using airports, housing and power as government kick-balls. The public is starting to see through it and this may be why the current government has reversed its position to that of the previous Labour government.
Blackstock published a planning manifesto some time ago in partnership with Addleshaw Goddard. In it we called for a single, long-term national plan to agree infrastructure for a generation. Canada has this.
We also called for London to be turned into a five-borough metropolis, like New York. This was widely covered by the BBC at the time and hilariously drew anger from much of the establishment.
Just as the runway debate will doubtlessly rile many different groups, what is beyond doubt is that we need new airport capacity and wherever that gets built there will be some negative impact we will have to try to mitigate. We should offer large incentives for greener planes and tax the hell out of the dirty ones, ring-fencing that cash for renewables.
We should, at the same time, stop undoing the positive work done previously to give green energy a leg up. The current shambles in energy policy is in line with everything else politicians seem to touch, be it housing, social care or railways. Ensuring that people are fairly compensated for homes that need to be bought (the figure of 125% of property value has been suggested) is crucial.
The fact that we have crises across housing, transport, energy, social care and the wider health service is down to a total lack of long-term investment and strategic planning. No one has taken the 20-30 year view that all of those things need. There is never a short-term payback period with infrastructure, yet politicians think only in five year bursts.
Ultimately, Heathrow is the best solution we have, whatever the challenges we face (and there are many). Over the long term, we should indeed look at regenerating the eastern side of Britain and a new airport could form part of a long term vision. But this then raises the question over HS2 being in the wrong place (going along the west rather than east coast).
If, as Justine Greening would seemingly prefer, Heathrow did shut, there would at least be space to build tens of thousands of homes. However, with the Putney MP presiding over one of the priciest housing districts in the country, the dent in her voters’ house prices from a flood of new locals may keep them awake at night longer than one of those mighty A380s.