Political paralysis is nothing new – look at the decades of dithering on Heathrow

Kate Andrews
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Our politicians treat opportunities as hindrances (Source: Getty)

I, too, have been part of the crowds of people lamenting how indecisive and slow the Brexit negotiations have been thus far.

It’s true – but let’s not pretend it’s anything new.

British politics is static. MPs are strangely happy to boast about making waves, but far too fearful to put rhetoric into action.

Read more: Labour prepares to block Heathrow while former minister tears into plans

Take former chancellor George Osborne, who was proud to wear the austerity badge and made sweeping claims about fiscal responsibility. In reality, he only cut spending, on average, by 0.5 per cent per year, failing to take an axe to egregious areas of government largesse.

Or take housing – for all of the Prime Ministers’ talk on tackling the UK’s housing crisis, no meaningful changes have been made to the planning system to build the million new homes that were needed yesterday.

And it’s not just the high-level issues where government struggles – 26-30 year olds are still waiting on that discounted railcard.

But perhaps the pinnacle example of inertia is the building of a third runway at Heathrow airport.

The debate over whether the UK needs a new runway has been dragging on for the better part of two decades. As Britain has dithered over which location might get an additional runway, China has been building dozens of airports, while the Economist reports that Dubai has more than doubled its airport capacity.

The past few decades have seen air travel transform from a luxury for the rich to an accessible service for people in all income brackets. Millions of passengers board aeroplanes today who are earning under £20,000 per year.

But as Heathrow becomes more congested, cheap flights are put further at risk and cancellations are far more likely.

Productivity is lost and people find it harder to transfer themselves in to visit, and out to travel.

It’s not just consumers who bear the cost of limited capacity. A post-Brexit Britain that wants to be global can’t operate with infrastructure that was designed for the demands of years gone by.

Yet still, there is no evidence that plans to extend Heathrow will ultimately get the green light.

The cabinet’s approval this week seemed like yet another charade in a great chain of non-action.

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson – who once threatened to lie down “in front of bulldozers” to stop the expansion from going ahead – has been given permission to skip the House of Commons vote in a few weeks’ time. The government still seems insistent on avoiding any form of disruption.

Where we have seen a glimpse of policy change, it is always designed to further control the individual. The government can increase the cost of a fizzy drink, but is utterly incapable of bringing down the cost of airfare, travel, housing, or tax.

The public is far more ready for upheaval than politicians are ready to deliver. Despite being distinct campaigns, the EU referendum and the US 2016 election provided two extremely clear signs that the status quo is no longer tolerable.

Yet Britain’s leaders have failed to get the message. On the domestic and foreign fronts, they treat opportunities as hindrances.

A decision on Heathrow is better late than never. Let it be a springboard for politicians to start discussing less intrusive, more meaningful change.

Read more: Former Airports Commission chairs urge MPs to back third runway

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