Governments have an amazing propensity to dither, and perhaps the best example of it in living memory is the to-ing and fro-ing about where to lay down a stretch of much needed tarmac.
The debate over whether to build another runway at Heathrow or Gatwick has been kicked down the road so many times one could be forgiven for thinking politicians are arguing about whether to build one at all. Decades have passed since the squabbling and hand-wringing began and spades are yet to go into the ground.
Yet the question really should be a simple one. Most people agree that there will have to be some extension to our airport capacity in the south, not only because of the huge economic benefit it will bring the UK in the coming years, but to avoid losing the business we already get through our airports to much better equipped ones on the continent.
Heathrow is by some margin the busiest in Europe, with 73.4 million passengers passing through it in 2014 alone – but it is at capacity. The runways cannot take any more planes per hour, meaning stagnation in numbers is inevitable at a time when globalisation is really getting into its stride. As China moves towards being the largest outbound tourism market in the world, we need to be able to accept another 5 million visitors a year, or Paris, Frankfurt and Istanbul – the three next-largest airports in Europe – will take them instead.
It is odd how diffident successive UK governments have been about the issue. For centuries, Britain had a reputation for getting things done: the Victorians would scoff out how indecisive we have been about something as essential as our gateway to the world. Can you imagine the political class hesitating about building a new port during the roaring industrial era?
Both sides try to make their case for being the ‘cleaner’ option as far as pollution is concerned but to frame the debate in terms of environmental impact is ludicrous. Over many thousands of flights a year, we’re talking about trying to accommodate the same plane numbers, so the fumes belching out over our heads are much of a muchness. Aviation is a filthy, noisy business whichever way you try to spin it.
So which side of the fence to come down on? Gatwick is a good airport but it is clumsily linked to London by a questionable train service and doesn’t have the terminal capacity we will be looking for 20 years hence – turning it into a major global hub will require re-imagining an airport that has always played second fiddle the Heathrow. The latter is already a serious piece of infrastructure and has the major advantage of being on the London Underground network – that Piccadilly line train journey is simple and reasonably rapid.
Ultimately, this debate is about industrial progress and that’s why Heathrow should get the investment: our most significant transport asset is full to bursting and it needs the breathing room. If a company has too many people for the office building, it gets a bigger office building. The issue is about business and how best to conduct it, the work will be insanely expensive and the jewel in the crown is the wisest place to do it.