Stagnation has made politicians

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Aviation: asking where before why
Stagnation has made politicians, and perhaps voters, desperate for anything that sounds like it might turn on the economic jets
Tuesday 17 December 2013 21.55 GMTLast modified on Thursday 31 December 201523.58 GMT
Westminster still looks the same, but when it debates aviation you can feel as if you’ve been bundled on to a plane and dropped in another country. Back in 2008/09, David Cameron told his newly greened Tories that “the right thing to do is not go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow”. Meanwhile Ed Miliband was semi-publicly digging in against concrete and calamity from inside government. Both stood up for a planet being poisoned by flight, as well for more sustainable growth. This same pair of men now define the terms of political trade, and yet, as Sir Howard Davies’s Airport Commission reported on Tuesday, the only argument was about where in England’s crowded south-east a new runway should be built.
For boys (and it normally is boys) who grew up on Airfix, the draft maps of end-to-end runways at Heathrow and parallel landing strips at Gatwick made for compelling study. The inclusion of Boris Johnson’s four-runway island airport as a half-baked half-option caught even non-planespotting eyes. Perhaps that was the aim, seeing as the actual analysis of the Davies commission dismissed the London mayor’s fancy as “extremely expensive”, citing a price of “around five times” the alternatives. But if we take seriously the words of Messrs Cameron and Miliband from a few years ago, it is not merely “Boris island” that is a distraction but the whole debate.
The old Mr Cameron warned that “If we don’t act now, and act quickly, we could face disaster” from the climate. That danger has not gone away, and neither have Whitehall’s own projections for a 50% rise of aviation emissions by 2050, projections that make a mockery of a supposedly binding commitment to cut 80% out of total greenhouse gases by the same date. A “plan and provide” approach will no more resolve this than solve traffic congestion; with roads and with airports alike, the better mantra is “Build it and they will come”. This was the logic that initially led the coalition to reject Heathrow expansion, so why is it now, indulged if not quite supported by the opposition, drifting inexorably towards a new runway in the south-east?
“The economy, stupid” is a plausible-sounding answer, but it is stupidly amiss. Messrs Cameron and Miliband resisted airport expansion in 2008/09 as GDP plummeted, whereas today national income is picking up. The timescales make airport building immaterial to the recovery, but what about the longer term – don’t globalising businesses simply demand that Britain lay on more flights? Not at all: business trips represents only 16% of overall UK flights, a proportion that has been dwindling as free video-conferencing dispenses with jetsetting meetings. The real pressures are trips home for an increasingly cosmopolitan population (a real issue, though a relatively modest proportion of overall flights) and, more particularly, holidays.
The opening up of foreign travel has been a wonderful thing in many ways, and any politician who dismissed the tourism of their constituents would soon get their just deserts. But passengers need to face the full environmental costs of their travel, and nobody ought to pretend that the path to higher productivity can be cut by more Britons going on holiday. Indeed, the UK’s difficulties with the balance of payments are inflamed by a stubborn imbalance within the tourism sector – the draw of the sun ensures that Brits spend more abroad than foreigners spend here.
Even taking the figures at face value, the Davies report talks of a total economic benefit of £60bn, which sounds a lot but is far less than 0.1% of GDP over the many decades involved. As for the concern about more balanced growth – that concern about an overheating south-east and an investment-starved north that was once part of Mr Cameron’s basis for rejecting Heathrow – you can forget it. Years of stagnation have made politicians, and perhaps the voters they represent, desperate for anything that sounds like it might turn on the economic jets – whether or not it will actually achieve liftoff.

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