Last week the British government decided to defer its decision on whether to expand London’s Heathrow airport. This has been roundly condemned by people the media calls “business”, referring to self-appointed lobby groups of large companies. But what is all this about? Now it could be what the lobbyists claim, which is weak government pure and simple. Or it could be a straw in the wind for a much more interesting change in attitudes in the political economy.
The story so far. Heathrow has long been operating at near capacity. London’s second airport, Gatwick, is approaching capacity too. If you believe that air travel must increase for a healthy economy, then something must be done to expand capacity. In the long view this conventional wisdom is open to question: but as a good liberal I must accept that the freely made choices of my fellow citizens point to further growth in air travel. The politics, however, are toxic. Airports in the prosperous south east of England are not popular with those that live nearby, whatever benefits they bring. Since Heathrow is quite close to the London conurbation, that adds up to an awful lot of people. Many of these people live in marginal constituencies.
Nevertheless the Labour government prior to 2010 supported an extra runway at Heathrow. But both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, spying opportunities in these south west London seats, were vehemently opposed. The Conservative leader, David Cameron, went as far as to say: “No ifs, no buts, there will be no third runway at Heathrow” (or something like it). When these two parties turned Labour out in 2010 and formed a coalition, the existing expansion plan was thrown out. Instead the government set up an Airports Commission to evaluate the alternatives, to conveniently report after the next General Election, in 2015. It duly reported in the summer, recommending a new runway at Heathrow, in a different place to the previous plan. By then the Conservatives had crushed the Lib Dems and were in government on their own. It would have been a good moment to show decisive leadership and accept the Commission’s results. They would have been able to steamroller opposition from their London MPs.
But Mr Cameron didn’t. He dithered. Why? There seem to be two nakedly political factors. The first is that Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park, had threatened to resign and cause a by election if the government supported Heathrow expansion. That ordinarily would be a little local difficulty – but he is the Conservatives’ candidate for London Mayor in 2016. A split would be messy. The second is that Mr Cameron’s “No ifs, no buts” promise is weighing on him. He fears a “Nick Clegg moment”, referring to the collapse in the Lib Dem’s leader’s public standing when he decided to reverse a pledge on student tuition fees after 2010. And Mr Cameron needs all his political capital to carry through his referendum on the European Union. Perhaps this is enough to explain last week’s announcement to defer the final decision until next summer, after further reviews of the implications for air pollution. By then the Mayoral election will have happened, and so might the EU referendum.
But there may be something deeper. It could be that the tide of conventional wisdom is moving against Heathrow expansion, recognising that the terms of reference of the Airports Commission were flawed. If that is the case then the delay is a process of gathering more evidence against Heathrow, so that a decision to expand Gatwick instead will be better proofed against judicial review.
Why might the tide be turning? Well, the case for Heathrow is based on 20th Century economics. The idea is that to make a big airport even bigger is more efficient that building up smaller airports. Time was when the concept of economies of scale was so baked into the conventional wisdom that this logic would not have to be seriously examined. But for airports it does have to be questioned. For a start, any air traveller knows that larger airports are less efficient for point to point travel. Every stage of the process takes longer than for a smaller airport. I remember vividly that taxiing to the terminal after landing at Schiphol airport took as long as the flight itself.
But there is a clear benefit of a running a large airport: that of making connections. This is referred to as being a “hub”. There are two aspects to this. The first is that hub airports can consolidate short distance flights into long distance ones, in a configuration that allows demand for long haul journeys to be met more efficiently. The second is that the presence of a lot of people waiting around in hub airports is an economic opportunity for the host country: it can sell them things. It is on the benefits of the hub operation that the Airports Commission’s recommendation is based: expanding Heathrow will generate bigger benefits to the British economy as a whole than would expanding Gatwick. This can be challenged, however.
The first point of challenge is on the efficiency of the hub model as the best way of managing long haul traffic – or of a hub based in London. One argument is that technology is moving against this. Smaller, efficient long haul aircraft are being developed that allow the alternative, point to point model to be more viable. The second is that the Arabian Gulf is emerging as an alternative airport hub location, and one which has a clear comparative advantage, if not an out and out absolute advantage. Pumping up a London hub is fighting the laws of global economics.
The second point of challenge is on the business of running a hub: the shops and restaurants. The London economy is already overheated, as shown by very high property prices. There really is no need for the extra income. If the hub was in the north of England, that might be a very different matter. The fact that the airport is so unpopular locally gives a clue to this.
And on top of these direct challenges there is a strategic tide. Politicians and economists are worried that economic growth in developed countries like Britain is bypassing most people, and ending up in the pockets of large multinationals and a tiny elitesof people that run them and provide supporting services such as tax avoidance advice and banking. The penny is dropping that this may largely be down to the excessive market power of large businesses, extracting monopolistic profits. And yet the Heathrow business case seems to be a paean to this form of monopolistic capitalism. And those business lobbyists provide an unwitting confirmation of this.
Before the Commission reported, it was arguments such as these that induced me to predict that Gatwick would win over Heathrow. The Airports Commission was a blow; but I am holding to my prediction yet.