In one of my previous posts I discussed the new High Speed Two railway line and why Im broadly in favour of it. While there are other things Id rather spend £17 Billion on (even just thinking in terms of transport infrastructure) my attitude is, lets not throw the baby out with the bath water. Warts and all its better than the alternative – sweet FA!!
But one of the reasons for my lack of wholehearted support for HS2, is the fact that we are repeatedly told by the government that Britain is broke and needs to get the deficit down ASAP. As we all know this has led to a deep and wide ranging series of austerity measures, which has seen significant job cuts in the military, higher student fees, cuts to the NHS and services for disabled people, cuts to council budgets (one council even cancelled Christmas and others are ending town twining arrangements) and most recently talk of welfare reforms with a cap on payments. The way things are going, Im half expecting to see an Orphan standing outside of Osbornes house next week with a sign saying boy for sale.
So I was somewhat surprised when the government announced that it was in fact supporting HS2 to the tune of £17 Billion. Now, like I said, its part of a long term investment in national infrastructure to make up for decades of chronic under investment in the UKs railways. We have to look on it in that context. Hence why Im critical of it, but will support it all the same…
…Sufficient to say I then almost choked on my cereal last week when during my breakfast our tight, penny pinching and supposedly pauperised government announced that they were seriously considering a proposal from Boris Johnson to build an entire new airport in the London estuary on an artificial island to the tune of £50 Billion pounds!
If we can afford to think about shelling out £50 Billion on a new airport, in a city that already has 5 of them (Heathrow, Luton, Gatwick, City and Stansted), then maybe we aint that broke after all!
Now you may well argue that, like HS2, this is a long term infrastructure project and should be looked at in that context. But do the governments arguments in favour of this new airport stack up?
The Tories say we need a new airport in London because with new emerging markets opening up in South America, Asia and Africa we need to run more international flight to these destinations so business travellers will come to London and do business. London is already loosing out to other rival capitals, notably Paris and Frankfurt, which are now the main hubs for travellers from the emerging economies into Europe.
Well firstly, one of the reasons why Paris has been able to expand its number of international flights isnt because they built a new airport (though theyve certainly expanded Charles De Gaulle a few times) but because the French high speed railway network has largely eliminated the need for many domestic internal flights, leaving landing slots free for other flights to international destinations. Similarly HS2 by cutting journey times to Birmingham and beyond will reduce the need for internal flights, freeing up space in Londons existing airports. This could be further enhanced by putting a new high speed railway hub out at Heathrow, allowing international travellers to step off a flight and get straight on a train and be in Birmingham in under an hour and even Glasgow in about 4 hours (or less with later expansion of the HS2 line). This would free up the need for a number of domestic flights, allowing more room for international ones.
Better yet, the trains would pass right by Birmingham International, we could envisage an expansion of this airport as an alternative, bringing further jobs and investment to the economically deprived midlands. The midlands and its manufacturing and design industries being often the ultimate destination of many of these business travellers. Of course, I would argue that with climate change and peak oil as long term concerns, wasting money on expanding airports is pouring good money after bad.
But if you insist on expanding the number of flights (as the government does) into the UK, well it would make far more sense and cost a good deal less to expand an existing airport, than build a new one from scratch on an artificial island (and quicker too!). Our international business traveller isnt going to really care whether he lands in Gatwick, Birmingham, Luton, Heathrow or Stansted, so long as the means are provided for him to get into Central London, or other cities in the UK, within a reasonable time frame. Hence the benefits of high speed rail.
Indeed while were talking about it, one thing that never added up about the proposed Terminal 6 and the 3rd runway at Heathrow was the fact that so much of Heathrow is given over to freight and cargo (3rd busiest in Europe by cargo and freight, 1.5 million tons p/a). Do the parcels really care where they enter and leave Britain from? Wont it be easier to just move these parcel depots and cargo planes somewhere else? To another airport in the south east (or do up an existing airfield, or small regional airport Oxford or Southampton spring to mind!) with a dedicated new cargo terminal and then retrofit the freight section of Heathrow (and the freed up landing slots) to passenger traffic?
All of the options Ive discussed would be quicker, easier and cheaper to implement and allow the sort of expansion of international flights the government wants, without increasing noise pollution in London. So why is the government, for whom bringing down the deficit is top priority, instead proposing to blow £50 Billion on an unneeded airport? Well possibly because of one little detail I left out. All of the options I discussed above would be great for international business travellers coming to Britain as their final destination (theyll be coming to stay and do business in the UK). However, if youre BA and you want to do transfer flights to say New York, then you do need a single large transport hub. Of course Id counter that this is hardly in keeping with the spirit of the Tories position. An international businessman who lands in London and then jets off to JFK 3 hours later is hardly going to be bringing much business to the UK, save whatever he picks up in duty free! Much like how Terminal 5 turned out to be nothing more than a thinly disguised (and illegal) subsidy of BA, Im suspicious that this is what the proposed new airport is really about and all these argument about business travellers is just a load of BS to fob of taxpayers.
But more fundamentally and returning to my original question, if why I say is true, why are the Tories proposing these projects? And what about the proposed new nuclear reactor projects that they havent yet announced but are widely believed to be in the pipeline, plus the repository for nuclear waste under the lake district? How much will all of this cost? Arent the Tories worried about the deficit?
I propose two answers to the above question. Firstly, its becoming obvious that the tight austerity measures imposed by the government are at the very least slowing down the economic recovery and at worst pushing the country back into recession. This would depress tax receipts, making the deficit worse, and not only put in jeopardy the next election for the Tories, but blow away a crucial Tory mantra – that cutting public spending boosts the economy. Consequently one could envisage a panicked scramble with Cameron and Osborne leaping on the band wagon and backing any project with sufficient zeroes behind it in a desperate effort to defibrillate a haemorrhaging economy.
But the second possibility is that actually, the Tories dont really care about the deficit at all. It would lets face it be the first time they ever cared about it. No, its possible the real reason for obsessing over the deficit, is purely to engineer an excuse for more of the usual Tory policies, i.e. cutting back on public spending to anything that benefits the working classes and basically flog the peasants for daring to be poor…while giving them an excuse further down the line for a nice tax cut to the gentry…and some juicy big government sponsored construction contracts to chew on in the meantime as an entrée! They’ll be bringing back the poor laws next!