Because it is a Crowded Island

Although there are times when I feel that David Cameron needs to do more preparation than he seems to do at times and could therefore avoid unnecessary pressure on himself, overall he is doing a decent job under often difficult circumstances and building more runway capacity in the South East of England is a case in point.

My own views on expanding Heathrow I expressed (yet again), last July after publication of the Davies Report ( http://baldysblog.co.uk/2015/07/01/heathrow-expansion/ ) so I won’t repeat them but there are some broader comments to be made about major infrastructure projects in the UK that go beyond airport capacities.

Heathrow Expansion

Yesterday the Government announced that it was delaying a decision on expanding capacity at Heathrow or building a new runway at Gatwick until next Summer, the reason given and indeed was contained in the Davies Report concerns pollution and the need for further assessment of the impacts. Of course there are also internal party political implications for the Tories behind this too however and to give a flavour the following extract from the BBC website:

“The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) said it was “gutless”, while another group said it would have business leaders “tearing their hair out”.
They argue that the delay is bad for the UK economy.
But opponents welcomed the government’s plan to wait for further environmental research before making a decision.
No decision will be made before the summer of 2016, it was announced on Thursday.”

As ever, these reactions are not helpful because whoever gives a sound bite you can guarantee that in the background you can hear the wheels grinding of vested interests. In fact, if they had announced an expansion at Heathrow yesterday, it would just have prompted a legal challenge based upon pollution from those opposed which would have put the whole project on hold for some years so it is more a case of nobody winning.

A Lack of Ambition

The current Mayor of London Boris Johnson who is totally opposed to any expansion of Heathrow and had advocate the building of a totally new one in the Thames Estuary jokingly referred to as “Boris Island”, when told the news last night, was obviously delighted and once again made the point that expanding either Heathrow or Gatwick smacked of a total lack of ambition.

I totally agree with him and whether building in the Thames Estuary as he proposed or my rather more “off the wall” idea of building offshore in the Severn Estuary, the point is that we really do need to be far more imaginative when it comes to planning and building major infrastructure projects of all kinds. It is extraordinary that a British Government was involved in planning and executing a really imaginative project for Hong Kong prior to handing sovereignty back to the Chinese Government of Chek Lap Kok Airport as it is known to the locals, the Honk Kong International Airport to the rest of us, that was built on reclaimed land.

I think that this is a really interesting story which if you are not familiar with, is worth checking out and this link as a starting point: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_International_Airport The real point behind the story of Hong Kong Airport lies in the problems it faced with the old Kai Tak Airport which in some ways mirror the problems we have at Heathrow but it is also far more than that, Hong Kong has and always has had very restricted land mass to accommodate its population and needs so have we in the South East.

However it is not just with regard to expanding Heathrow but also to creating new high speed rail links where the costs, in no small part due to the crowded nature of these islands, demand that we become far more imaginative but also that we take a “bigger view” in trying to solve our problems, why should air transport be considered separate from rail, are they not in some way very connected indeed ?

The Main Problem

In simple terms, where people want to live because that is where the main economic advantages are for them is London and the South East of England and the consequence is that land is at a premium there and the existing “owners rights” means that major change is expensive often, prohibitively so. In the original proposal, the M25 motorway that encircles London was supposed to have a companion “inner” version running closer to the centre that it would link to but this inner version was abandoned on cost grounds alone then, it would be totally impossible to contemplate today.

The HS1 rail link has tremendous cost problems due to having to ‘buy people out’ along the line of its route and even then people will not be satisfied and complain bitterly of their property being “blighted”, the political cost of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), to politicians is therefore very high so much so, its a wonder anything ever gets done.

London has risen to the challenge by tunnelling of which the new Crossrail projects and the London Sewer are brilliant examples but you can’t do that with aircraft !

My Approach

Although I cannot say that this is “The Plan” and one that would work, as an idea it has some merit in that it looks right across the piece and takes a view that if we are going to spend taxpayers money on major projects, not only should we get best value for money but also we should benefit more people than just the immediate users. So a repeat from my earlier post on Heathrow expansion and I acknowledge that quoting yourself is probably pretty naff but it is better than not acknowledging the fact you are repeating yourself.

“If they had the wit and as this project will cost billions of our cash, they should seize it as an opportunity to really be radical, pivot our whole economy. Why not build an artificial island in the Bristol Channel with high speed rail links going east to London and north to Birmingham and Manchester, in other words open up the West of England and South Wales to an economic revolution that could benefit the whole UK economy and ease the pressure on the South East ? It is what the Victorians would have done.”

I would suggest that doing something as radical as this has more the spirit that solved the problems of Kai Tak Airport than some fudge pouring concrete at Heathrow or Gatwick.

Conclusion

Currently it is David Cameron in the hot seat and his is a “no win” position as it has been for the past 40 odd years under different Prime Ministers because building extra capacity at Heathrow has been around for all of that time. If this PM finally wants to solve it as opposed to kicking it into the long grass, either he needs to be more imaginative or, he just gives the green light to expansion at Gatwick and has done with it.

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