Government indecision and cowardice over the expansion of Heathrow Airport is just one tangible, high profile manifestation of the British political disease
There is no better analogy for the broken, dysfunctional nature of British politics and strategic government planning than the ongoing saga over whether and how to expand London’s Heathrow Airport, an undertaking which most serious people concede needs to happen yet generations of Cabinet ministers seem quite unable to make a reality.
A year after it finally appeared that the decades-long decision process had at long last produced a result, we now learn that plans for a new terminal are being scaled back and the timeline further extended.
From the Times:
Heathrow is planning to build a mini version of Terminal 5 as part of slimmed-down proposals to expand Europe’s biggest airport.
The airport is considering building a new terminal a few hundred metres west of T5 to handle 25 million passengers a year as part of updated plans for a third runway, The Times has learnt.
Heathrow is also planning to phase all building work over as many as 15 years to reduce the cost of expansion by about £2.5 billion. The plan will be one of a series of options put to public consultation in mid-January.
Heathrow says that the proposals would bring the total cost down to about £14 billion, allowing the airport to keep passenger landing charges close to current levels.
Airlines have been concerned that Heathrow’s private owners would increase charges to pay for the project, potentially pricing out many passengers. At present fees add £21.75 to the price of each ticket. Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, has indicated that keeping landing charges flat would be a condition of building a third runway. The proposals have to pass a parliamentary vote early next year and be approved by planners in the 2020s.
In other words, the original plans for a new full-size terminal located next to the planned new runway have been downgraded to plans for what amounts to little more than a satellite terminal adjacent to Terminal 5.
And even this reduced ambition has to be justified to the grey mass of naysayers who would sooner go their whole lives without ever making a consequential decision, with Heathrow Airport’s owner now deliberately emphasising what a small, puny and inadequate solution this new micro-terminal would actually be, as though mediocrity and lack of ambition were a selling point (which in today’s Britain they are):
Any comparison with T5, which cost £4.2 billion and was delayed by a four-year planning inquiry, could cause major concerns. However, Heathrow insists that the new terminal would be smaller, catering for 25 million passengers compared with 35.5 million at T5. It would be built in two blocks, creating an initial facility for 15 million.
Wait! We can make this development worse and ensure that it fails even more to keep up with capacity demand by the time it gets built! Give Heathrow Airport another year and they will be proposing little more than a wedding marquee tent and a few folding tables.
The government understandably does not want air passengers to pay an unbearably steep cost to finance the expansion, yet it does not occur to them that adequate relief could easily be provided to passengers by cutting the ludicrously high Air Passenger Duty, an exercise in environmental virtue-signalling which makes Britain one of the most expensive and unattractive countries to fly from, and which is close to being a national embarrassment.
A real Conservative government might see the ideal opportunity and justification for a tax cut in this case, but sadly we do not have a real Conservative government at present – we have Theresa May’s strong and stable government, limping from day to day by offering as many concessions to the Left as is humanly possible without changing the Tory party logo from a tree to a hammer and sickle.
Of course there are some very specific reasons why countries like China and the United Arab Emirates can complete vast civil engineering projects in the same time it takes Britain to convene a planning committee – an authoritarian government, the absence of inconvenient democracy, few planning regulations, lax health and safety standards, cheap labour and/or a tolerance for slave labour being among the chief distinguishing factors.
And indeed one of the key factors which sets Britain apart from certain other countries is the importance we place on our preserving our heritage, our built environment and taking local concerns into account when giving the green light to major new projects. Any government can quickly see to the construction of a giant, soulless mega-mall in the desert, or a dubious national ego-boosting skyscraper in a locale where there is no real need to build upward. It takes far more inspiration and resourcefulness to create and expand critical national infrastructure or important new commercial developments in sympathy with natural surroundings which have often existed for many centuries.
But still, Britain is too hesitant when it comes to authorising critical new infrastructure projects of national importance, and our failure holds us back as a country. Whether it is central government failing to bite the bullet and commit to a decision for fear of political fallout, NIMBY campaigns effectively trumping the national interest with the local or ill-considered privatisations or public-private partnerships allowing responsibility for key decisions to slip through the cracks, decisions which should be made at a local level in a healthy democracy are instead commandeered by central government, and strategic decisions which should take two years instead take twenty.
One of the very first pieces written on this blog nearly six years ago lambasted the Tory-LibDem coalition government for kicking the can down the road on Heathrow airport expansion. It is a subject I have returned to again and again in subsequent years – and yet we are no closer to striking ground on a project which is essential to maintaining the pre-eminence of Heathrow as a key European hub. At this point, even if one of the alternative schemes (such as Gatwick expansion or a new airport in the Thames estuary) is chosen instead of a third runway and new terminals at Heathrow, we are rapidly reaching the point where any decision is better than no decision.
And as it is with Heathrow Airport expansion, so it is with nearly everything else in British politics. There are an array of slow-burning, pressing issues facing this country which successive governments have either tackled half-heartedly or ignored altogether. It is wrong to call them “crises” as there will be no sudden national implosion if they are not all fixed within six months, but our continued failure to tackle the housing shortage, low worker productivity, education reform, healthcare reform and immigration leads to a slow and steady erosion of trust in politics and our democratic institutions, as well as making Britain a less attractive place to live, work or invest.
The retrenchment of British ambition and capability is not emblemised by Brexit, as many tremulous Remainers like to claim. The symptoms have been all around us for years, decades even, and we have been too lazy or calculating to subordinate the short-term political interest to the long-term strategic need. Look at the big issues facing the West and the world in general in 2017 – global migration flows, Islamist terror, globalisation, outsourcing, automation and more – and there is not one of these complex problems which we as a country have failed to comprehensively sweep under the rug or otherwise avoid meeting the challenge.
Even on those occasions when the people have recognised burning problems and the need for bold new solutions, public opinion (such as on Brexit and immigration) has been repeatedly slapped down over the years by a cohort of politicians who think it is their job to explain and defend the current status quo to the citizenry rather than change the status quo according to the demands of the citizenry.
The managerialist, consensus politics which has characterised Britain since the end of the Thatcher and Major governments is partially justifiable when the economy, society and the world are operating in something like steady-state, and governments have but to tweak a few dials here or there to keep the system running smoothly. But this brand of aloof technocracy is lethal to national prosperity and security in times of discontinuity such as the period in which we find ourselves today, when the prevailing political consensus is conspicuously broken and the worn-out old policy prescriptions no longer command sufficient confidence or support.
As this blog has been warning repeatedly, and will continue to warn – even if nobody listens – the time for denial and evasions is over. But so too is the time for cosmetic, superficial pseudo-reforms or scattergun crisis management. Rather, we need to develop a set of mutually supporting new policies based on a clear analysis and understanding of the challenges facing modern Britain and the various ways in which they are interlinked. This is what the CPS did in 1977 with their “Stepping Stones” report, paving the way for Margaret Thatcher’s transformative government, and that is what we must do again today.
And until such time as we demand political solutions and visionary government equal to the challenges of the stormy present, every aspect of future Britain will soon come to resemble the cautionary tale of Heathrow Airport – dilapidated, twenty years behind the curve, fatally stymied by strategic indecision and increasingly avoided by anyone with the means to do so.
UPDATE – 19 December
Based on positive reader feedback to this and other articles, I am actually now trying to do something to turn this idea (the need to respond to discontinuity with radical but coordinated new policies) from a mere blog post to an actual project or initiative in the real world. We clearly can’t leave it to the usual inhabitants of Westminster to do this on their own – new ideas and fresh faces will be needed, just as they were in 1977.
If anyone who reads this article feels called to action, please do get in touch with me, either using the “contact” menu link at the top of the page, or directly at email@example.com
Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:
Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.
Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.