The Spectator

Flights of fancy | 27 October 2016

The drama at Heathrow is symptomatic of how badly Britain does infrastructure

An extra runway for Heathrow was first proposed by a Labour government — not Gordon Brown’s, or Tony Blair’s, but Clement Attlee’s in 1949. The revived scheme, announced in 2003, has taken 13 years to win government approval. Even now it’s unclear whether it will ever be built, given the legal, practical and political obstacles.

The MPs who will vote on this in a year’s time will have difficult questions to answer. Is it wise to further entrench the power and pull of Europe’s busiest airport, rather than expand Gatwick and promote competition? And must we expect regional traffic to go via Heathrow for long-haul flights? Why not allow smaller airports to expand, so that Mancunians can fly to Manchuria without needing to go near London? Trends in aviation show that direct flights are the future, thanks to the emergence of smaller long-haul aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Heathrow’s case is built on the hub-and-spoke proposition of yesteryear.

In fact, we are really only back to where we were in 2009 when Gordon Brown approved Heathrow’s third runway (and was condemned for doing so by Theresa May). There will now be a public consultation — and the inevitable legal challenges. Not to mention the prospect of the Foreign Secretary honouring his pledge to throw himself in front of Heathrow’s bulldozers should work actually start. By approving only Heathrow, the government has guaranteed years of wrangling and piled delay upon delay.

In Britain we have built one formidable industry on the back of Heathrow: that of lawyers and planners who specialise in holding inquiries, commissions and feasibility studies — and then, when a project is under way, judicial reviews and other legal challenges. Heathrow’s third runway has already cost taxpayers £13 million for the Davies commission and £4 million for the study commissioned by Alistair Darling in 2003.

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