London’s new airport held to ransom by folly


London’s airports are operating close to capacity. Noise levels around Heathrow are unacceptable. The location of Heathrow requires that too many flight paths cross the centre of London. Any proposed solution to these problems attracts vociferous objection. What is needed is an independent, radical review of options, which will not report before the next election.

This is not a story from 2012, but from 1968. The inquiry established then was chaired by Mr Justice Roskill. The one just commissioned is to be chaired by Sir Howard Davies. Not much else has changed – except that London’s airports then catered for 15m passengers. The Roskill Commission anticipated rapid growth in air transport, speculating that by the end of the century London might have to accommodate 100m passengers. Not a bad estimate; the actual number was 115m.

The commission concluded that a new airport should be built to the northwest of London at Cublington, between Aylesbury and Milton Keynes, with matching improvements to road and rail links. The report is a model of dispassionate analysis. Although its reliance on cost benefit analysis was widely criticised, that analysis was not employed to make decisions but used as a guide to the careful organisation of evidence. The contrast between the work of the commission and the dismal quality of the material supporting the proposed new high-speed rail link to Birmingham is a measure of how far standards of evidence in policy making have declined.

Not that the excellence of the Roskill Commission’s work did them or us much good. A government of different complexion rejected its findings immediately. A scheme to build an airport at Foulness, on Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary, was chosen instead. This option had been considered by Roskill and decisively rejected. The new airport was too expensive to build, too far from London and on the wrong side of the city for most prospective passengers. The poor location would not only greatly increase travel times but also lead airlines to use other airports to the south and west of London, or on the continent of Europe.

Neither Foulness nor Cublington was built. The complexion of the government changed yet again. After some delay, another scheme was devised: a limited expansion of an existing airport at Stansted, near Cambridge. More than a decade later, the newly privatised British Airports Authority used the money generated from its cash cow at Heathrow to finance that project.

Stansted was also considered by Roskill, but never made the shortlist of serious options and has been a predictable failure. No airline has successfully operated long-haul flights from it. The expansive and expensive Norman Foster terminal was saved from being a white elephant by the growth in the 1990s of low-cost airlines, for whom attractive landing charges at Stansted offset the inconvenience to their passengers of getting there. The principal carrier is Ryanair.

Cublington was almost certainly the right answer in 1971 when Roskill reported. It might still be the right answer but the scale and complexity now involved in creating a wholly new facility in the English countryside would be orders of magnitude greater. Delay has multiplied the constraints and while Roskill was faced with a menu of choices, Sir Howard confronts one with no palatable dishes at all. And whatever the government decides after his work is completed, aircraft will disturb the residents of west London for many years yet, and travellers will continue to circle the city as business flights from newly emerging economies land at Paris and Frankfurt.

One might feel consoled if there were even slight signs that the lessons of bad policy making had been learnt. But the prevarication and political posturing, the persistent incrementalism when bold actions are required, the readiness to oppose policies simply because they have been espoused by somebody else, are as characteristic of policy today as they have been for the past 50 years. Models are more elaborate but less useful, and grossly misused. And, as Roskill pointed out, the 100,000 people who might have been adversely affected by a rational policy are encouraged to shout far louder than the 100m who would benefit.

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