BRITAIN’S inability to expand our airport capacity is inevitably met with complete bafflement in other, more ambitious parts of the world. In the nineteenth century, the naval trade allowed London to grow into a great, global metropolis; in the 21st century, planes have replaced boats as an essential driver of business travel, tourism and growth. So the fact that we are still bickering about trying to add to southern England’s airport capacity is depressing in the extreme.
Of course, shipping still matters hugely; and DP World’s massive new London Gateway deep sea container port at Stanford-le-Hope in Thurrock, Essex on the north bank of the Thames, around 25 miles from central London, will be a major boost for our trade when it opens shortly. It is an astonishing project, probably the best, most state of the art piece of infrastructure built in this country for years. It will give a fillip to the Port of London, currently third after Felixstowe and Southampton, and bolster productivity, cut costs, and link imports and exports to rail and road. The port will sit next to an immense new logistics park, Europe’s biggest.
But while DP World, a Dubai-based company, has sorted out our maritime trade capacity for us, the coalition is preventing others from bolstering the UK’s airport capacity. No decisions will be taken until 2015 at the earliest. City Airport is seeking to expand, a welcome development, but one which won’t solve the overall capacity crisis. We have form when it comes to dithering over airports: after well over a decade of debates, the then government gave the go-ahead in 1973 to what was meant to become a giant new airport in Maplin Sands, Foulness, in the Thames Estuary.
This would have included new M12 and M13 motorways to London, a high-speed rail link, a huge new town of 600,000 people and a new port. The project was granted planning permission and the royal assent, to no avail: Labour vetoed it when it came to power in 1974, a disastrous decision from which London has still not recovered. Many of our present infrastructure and even housing problems can be dated back to that blunder, taken during the most abysmal, declinist period in post-war British history.
Lots of other ideas have subsequently been discussed; all have been blocked. We are stuck, once again, between expanding Heathrow (agreed by Labour, blocked by the coalition, hated by Boris Johnson), building a new airport in the Thames Estuary (Boris’s favourite option), expanding Stansted or perhaps something else again.
Compare our economically suicidal time-wasting with what has been happening in Dubai. The emirate has bounced back from the crisis, boosted in part by a large rise in tourism. Its existing Dubai International Airport is expected to handle a record 65.4m passengers this year, almost as many as Heathrow; its second, brand new airport – Dubai World Central/Al Maktoum International Airport – is opening for passenger traffic next month, having already entered the freight market in 2010. Its capacity in year one will be 7m passengers, but this will progressively rise as the airport is developed. Eventually, the plan is for Dubai’s second airport to become the largest in the world, with five runways, 160m passengers and 12m tonnes of cargo a year.
Of course, the UK isn’t Dubai. They have lots of desert that can be converted into airports; we don’t and thus need to be more creative. But that’s not an excuse for doing nothing. Other countries are doing what it takes to compete and grow in the global economy. Private companies would be happy to build more airport capacity in the UK, just as they are building a new port – and yet our governments have spent the past few decades being too stupid and short-sighted to agree. This country needs to gets its act together, and fast.