It’s going to be Gatwick

On Monday the Airports Commission, chaired by Lord Howard Davies, produced its interim report. The Commission was set up to make recommendations on the expansion of airports in and around London, which has become a politically vexed question. To most people, this complex question is viewed through a single dimension, such as whether or not Heathrow will be expanded. As a result, most of the commentary has been very shallow. To me its conclusion is obvious: it will recommend building another runway at Gatwick airport, and all the other airport expansion ideas will be put on ice for 20 years or so. And yet I haven’t seen a single commentator suggest this.

The Commission concluded that it would not be a good idea for us to make do with existing runways, though it denied taking a “predict and provide” approach. Various alternatives, including improving rail travel, or using airports elsewhere in Britain, were dismissed. In addition to a number of shorter-term measures, such as improving rail connectivity, it offered three credible options for adding a runway. Two were based at Heathrow, and one at Gatwick. A further, and much more radical, proposal to build a brand new airport on the Isle of Grain in Kent (“Boris Island” after its most prominent advocate, London’s Mayor Boris Johnson), was not ruled out, but, they said, it needed more analysis. This new airport would imply the closure of Heathrow Airport and, incidentally, London City airport.

So far as Heathrow advocates were concerned, this looked like a major victory, and most of the press seems to agree. The idea of building a third runway at Heathrow had been approved by the last Labour government, but both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats campaigned vigorously against it in West London. So when these two parties formed a coalition in 2010, they quickly ruled it out, with Labour toeing the line also, after doing badly in the west London area in the election. But the Heathrow advocates did not give up. They launched a sustained campaign that convinced many non-London MPs and journalists, so that it became almost conventional wisdom to suggest that the government’s policy of Heathrow was the height of folly. They secured the sacking of Putney’s MP Justine Greening as Minister of Transport, who had been vocally anti-Heathrow, as Putney is one of the areas badly affected by aircraft noise, from planes coming in to land (which are a constant background noise as I write this in nearby Battersea). They secured the set-up of the Airport commission, and now Heathrow is prominent amongst the potential solutions. This is remarkable progress indeed.

The Heathrow advocates have indeed secured an important victory over some of their opponents: and in particular those that suggested that London does not need a new runway at all, an important part of the anti-Heathrow coalition. They look to be ahead of the Boris Island advocates too; and indeed the obstacles to this radical plan look formidable. But almost unnoticed, the idea of a second runway at Gatwick is sneaking up on the inside.

Two important developments are bringing Gatwick into the picture. Firstly it has been taken away from the ownership of BAA, who also own Heathrow, and who are leading the Heathrow advocacy campaign, on competition grounds. BAA have never regarded Gatwick as their main priority, and would not advocate its expansion at Heathrow’s expense. The new owners. however, have given this airport new energy (it is already much improved). Secondly is the march of time. Gatwick is legally prevented from building a new runway before 2019; previously this had looked to be too far away into the future, but now it does not.

If that has put the option on the map, the Interim Report makes three major points in its favour. First is the most obvious. Many fewer people live nearby, and the airport’s expansion would blight many fewer lives. Second is quite a subtle one. It is that expanding Gatwick does not preclude any other options later. Expanding Heathrow would kill the Boris Island idea. Boris Island would kill Heathrow. I hadn’t appreciated this until I saw a table in the report explaining the impacts of the various proposals on each other; Gatwick’s was the only option with a complete set of green ticks. Expanding Gatwick postpones the existential battle between Heathrow and Boris Island, rather than killing one or other off forever.

But the third point is the most important one. The Commission has not bought the central argument of the Heathrow advocates, which is that the bigger the airport is, the more competitive it becomes. This idea is usually supported by graphs showing Heathrow in a life or death struggle for leadership with Charles de Gaulle near Paris, and Amsterdam’s Schipol. The emerging mega-airport in Dubai is spoken of in admiring terms, and the word “hub” is used with abandon. The Commission has spotted two weaknesses in this line of argument. First is that it is by no means clear that the hub model of airline travel (where passengers fly to a hub in a smaller plan and change up to a bigger one there) is actually the way of the future. The most successful airlines use a point to point model, and airliner technology is changing to make this easier. Second, there is no reason that the hubs for the world’s three main airline alliances need to be at the same airport, and that putting an extra runway into Gatwick would allow this airport to be a hub for one of these alliances, or even allow passenger to change planes in a do-it-yourself hub.

A further point is that the public transport links to Gatwick from central London are already good, and are likely to improve. They certainly compete with Heathrow’s, even though that airport is closer to the centre. Notwithstanding all the noise we get from planes landing at Heathrow, it is in fact much easier for us to get to Gatwick by train, for example – though by car would be different.

What tips the balance of the competing claims is the politics. Outsiders to west London don’t seem to understand how large the issue looms here. We (I’m no neutral in this) aren’t just fed up with the noise, being woken up at 5am on Sunday morning, and having visits to Richmond Park, Kew Gardens and countless other  outdoor venues blighted. We are fed up with the constant pressure on us exerted by BAA and its allies, trying to deny what we feel, and trying to push expansion past us a one small slice at a time. There is no trust. Feelings run deep, and their are a host of marginal constituencies for all three of the main political parties. Gatwick no doubt has its own political ramifications, but it has none of the same scale of toxicity. Gatwick is a get out of jail free card.

So, you read it here first. The next new runway for London’s airports, and the only one for the next 20 years or more, will be at Gatwick airport. Hooray!

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Nick Clegg is right to aim for the centre ground

This morning I got a grumpy email from the Social Liberal Forum, a left-inclined pressure group within the Liberal Democrats. It complained about the apparent support the party is giving to the Conservative policy of aiming for a balanced budget, and so a continuing diet of austerity. It criticised this idea for being economically illiterate. It went on that the policy was

Cold comfort … to the people having to choose between heating their homes and eating this Winter, to those forced to go to foodbanks to feed themselves and their children, to families struggling with the cost of living crisis

They also criticised the party leadership aiming at a “mythical place known as “the Centre ground””, and of being closer to the Conservatives than Labour.

All this illustrates the disarray on the British left on economic policy following the unexpected turn for the better the economy has taken. Previously the left could unite around the proposition that the government’s austerity policy was “too far, too fast”, causing hardship amongst society’s least well off. They took immense comfort from the support of many Keynesian economic heavyweights, who said that, in the absence of growth, the state should disregard the government deficit and stimulate the economy to get it moving – or at least stop making the situation worse through cuts. Hence the government’s supporters being “economically illiterate”.  Yes they said, the government should tackle the deficit, but not until growth has been restored.

Though some might not realise it, that fox has been shot by the economic upturn. It isn’t that those economists were wrong, or that “too far, too fast” did not have economic validity at the time; it is that circumstances have changed. If the economy is growing, it is not a good idea to add further stimulus to it. And the “later” when the government should start to tackle the deficit issue has started to arrive. The awkward question that much government expenditure before the crisis was unsustainable, and would have to be cut in due course, cannot now be dodged.

In response the Labour party has changed the subject. Instead it is focusing on a “cost of living crisis” which they blame on badly behaving businesses, from energy companies to house builders. They are proposing a series of populist but economically naïve policies to change these companies’ behaviour. They appear to have no macroeconomic strategy, and the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, is conspicuously floundering.

Politically, Labour’s strategy is interesting. Instead of following political conventional wisdom by chasing voters who float between the main parties (which is what is meant by the “Centre ground”) they seem to be chasing left-inclined or working class voters who will never vote Conservative, but who do not currently vote at all. Centrist voters are worried about the management of the economy, and seem to think that the Conservatives have the stronger case on that front. Instead of trying to reassure these voters by making it clear that they would continue with austerity policies to bring the deficit under control, they are chasing other voters.

What is even more interesting is that the Conservatives are also showing little interest in the Centre. Centre voters are worried about “fairness”, and the state of public services, where they trust Labour more. But instead of doing much to reassure voters here, they are stirring up headlines on immigration and the European Union, where they are proposing policies that are just as economically naïve as Labour’s. Again, quite apart from fighting off the populist challenge presented by Ukip, they seem so be after right inclined people who are not voting, but would never vote Labour if they did.

So if there is no serious contest for the Centre, and if both of the two bigger main parties are pursuing populist but foolish policies, there is surely an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg, their leader, is right to make a bid for this, which his party is doing with its “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” slogan, which epitomises the centre ground. The critics within the party of this strategy are right to point out that this is not ideological secure space, and will do little to built the party’s weak core vote. But if the party is to hang on to its representation in Parliament it will need the support of floating voters.

And so to economic policy. George Osborne, the Conservative Chancellor, is wrong to make a fetish of budget balance – and perhaps deserves to be called economically illiterate to do so. But it is economically sensible to manage the public’s expectations on what the state can afford. It may be that some economists are right, and that a “trend rate” of economic growth of 2-3% per annum is there for the taking in the medium to long term, as everybody seemed to think before 2007. But there are good reasons to suppose that they are wrong, and that much slower growth is “the new normal”, once a bit of catch-up growth is over. If so we will have to get used to a much smaller state and a less generous benefit system. Floating voters sense this, and will not vote for the Liberal Democrats if they think that they might help the Labour party take risks by reversing austerity. Nick Clegg may or may not be economically illiterate, but he is surely right on that one.

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Tesco is evil; Sainsbury’s is much better

As some of my readers will know, something over a year a go I suffered a heart attack. Not a particularly bad one, as these things go, but it required two stents in two sessions of keyhole surgery to clear the artery up. I am pretty much back to normal now, but the episode showed that I had a vulnerability. In particular I need to watch my diet and especially limit the amount of saturated fat I consume. So far this has proved successful, though to keep my “bad” cholesterol in the recommended zone takes a hefty dose of statins too. I have done this in large part by paying very close attention to food labels. This has given me new take on the intense competition between the retailing giants of Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

Using for labels to help manage diet is quite complicated, of course. But by a very long way the easiest method is to follow the advice of the British Heart Foundation (BHF), and look first and foremost at the intensity of the item: and that is measured in by the weight in every 100g of the product. All labels must carry this information somewhere. This idea is at the heart (as it were) of the traffic light system of food labelling. A low weight per 100g is green, a high weight is red, and amber is in between. You then need to make a judgement as how safe it is given the quantity. You save red for special treats or minute quantities; you are pretty free and easy with green. You treat amber with caution. Looking at the precise weights you can compare the virtues of one product against another. It’s not too difficult once you give it priority – which I do for saturated fats these days.

So you want to see is the traffic light colour quickly on the front of pack label. What would be ideal is to see weights per 100g on the same label when you want a closer look. Of all the supermarkets I use regularly (mainly Sainsbury’s and Tesco, but also Marks & Spencer and Waitrose), Sainsbury’s are, and have always been the clearest – though sadly they do not put the weights per 100g on the front of the packet. The traffic light label is particularly prominent and clear; the back of packet label with the fuller information (which I very often refer to as well, especially for amber products) is not hard to find.

Tesco is the opposite. They do have a front of packet label, but it is almost completely useless. It shows the weights for a unrealistically small portion size, and the % of recommended daily intake that this fictitious portion would be. There is no colour coding anywhere; you have to hunt out the tiny back of packet label and remember the green and red thresholds (the BHF provide a card to help with this). I think the idea is that the traffic light system penalises foods which you only consume in small quantities. But you are left with two problems: first is to work out how those percentages relate to your needs, which in many cases will have special dietary issues (saturated fats in my case) and where you might combine several elements into a single meal; and second you have to work out how your real portion relates to the theoretical one on the packet. Now if your diet consists mainly of ready meals (where the portion sizes are  realistic, and where all the elements have been brought together for you) I can see how you can turn this into a workable system for managing your intake. But this is not recommended for healthy eating, and any other way of eating is much easier work out using the traffic lights.

Frankly this is pretty obvious. And yet Tesco (and a few allies) have invested considerable PR resources into resisting the use of traffic light labelling and promoting their own, less workable system. The only possible explanation is that they want food labelling to fail in its aim of encouraging healthy eating, because they make more money that way. And that is evil.

Tesco has grown to be our biggest food retailer in the UK through a sort of conjuring trick: they give the impression of being very competitively priced, while producing consistently high profit margins. To shop in Tesco you are in a sort of fog of special offers, loss leaders and so on. They provide the data to make good decisions, but it is very hard work to use it to get tot he optimum result. Their attitude to food labelling seems symptomatic of their entire organisational culture.

Tesco are getting better. They have accepted a new food labelling standard which will show the traffic light colours (though I don’t think it is as clear as the Sainsbury’s system); they delayed this agreement with their corporate obfuscation, but they have not stopped it. Their margins are under pressure, and they are a bit less tricksy (I think). But their late conversion to higher ethical standards has come at a cost: people don’t trust them. Our local store is now a grimmer place to shop as they are being forced down market and reduce stocks of some of the more specialised things, like real coffee, that I like. Personally I wish I could avoid having to shop their, but our local store is so much more convenient than the other options that we end up buying about half our groceries there. It’s not growing on me.

Sainsbury’s has its own evil ways, doubtless. The fact that our nearest store is a much pleasanter place to shop than the local Tesco is as much down to the size of the store and local demographics as to the corporate style. But their exemplary approach to food labelling (ahead of Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, incidentally) gives them a lot of credit in my books. I trust them more than Tesco.

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Nelson Mandela: like all saints, he challenges us

After Nelson Mandela’s death yesterday, the news media and social networks are awash with adulation. One commentator said that he was the nearest thing we had to a modern saint. Personally I don’t go in for personal adulation of anybody, even saints, though I understand the sentiments. I greatly admired Mandela. The saint comment is apt. He shows that virtue, wisdom and above all humility of a saint. But saints should challenge us, as well provide us with objects of admiration. I can think of two ways that he is challenging conventional wisdom.

The first applies to the developing world, in particular. Mandela shows that if you really want to be admired by the world, you should use power with restraint, and show personal humility. Countless leaders across the world are doing the opposite – just look as Sri Lanka or Iraq. Here we see attempts to oppress minority communities, seeking revenge for past wrongs, the stirring up of divisions, and also the self-aggrandisement of those in power. Mandela acquired his stellar influence and reputation by doing the opposite. If only more world leaders would seek to emulate him.

The second challenge is to the developed world in particular. In face of the oppression and injustice of the Apartheid regime, Mandela did not discourage violent opposition, and indeed supported the “armed struggle” as it is euphemistically referred to. He did not glorify it, and his distaste for violent action was plain. But it cuts across our conventional wisdom that “terrorism” is never justified, which in practice means any violent challenge to the status quo. We urge non-violent resistance, following such icons as Mahatma Gandhi. Mandela himself was condemned by many in the developed world as a terrorist. And yet it is easy to see how this line of reasoning can be used to condemn any serious resistance to oppression; peaceful protest can simply be ignored, with enough brute force. The state of the Palestinians in Greater Israel is a case in point. However much we hate the apparently random attacks on civilians, what peaceful outlet for protest are the Palestinians being offered? In that instance, of course, the violence by Palestinians has not achieved anything useful – but we are left with a very troubling question of how the Israeli state will ever take them seriously.

Mandela did not eschew violent resistance as a last resort. But he did show restraint when he had the opportunity to exert the power of the state. To honour his memory we should reflect on these related principles.

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