When I moved from London to Cromer, colleagues were genuinely aghast, How, they asked, would I get to international meetings? “Norwich International Airport,” I replied. It’s 35 minutes’ easy drive from my door. Parking is plentiful, cheap, and all of a hundred-yard easy amble from the terminal. From Norwich you can get one of several daily KLM flights that connect easily and in less than an hour with Schiphol. From Schiphol you can go anywhere. What’s the problem?
The assumption lying behind my colleagues’ aghastness was that to fly anywhere you must needs do it from Heathrow, that overstretched, crowded and expensive-to-get-to blob just to the west of London. But capacity is limited: Heathrow has just two runways, and is now surrounded by suburbia. A somewhat laughable painting-over-the-cracks solution is to rebrand other airports, such as Gatwick (in Sussex), Stansted (in north Essex), Luton (in Bedfordshire) and even Southend (Essex again) as ‘London’. But the fact is, England needs more runways. Putting runways anywhere in the existing airports will be a considerable blight on peoples’ lives.
Boris Johnson, whom posterity will view as the greatest statesman of this or any other age, came up with the idea of an airport made from reclaimed land far out in the Thames Estuary, to the east of London. This is a good idea because, compared with West London, there is very little out there. The land is ripe for reclamation and infrastructure development, which would lead to jobs, votes and much rejoicing.
It would also be a good chance to build something totally new, from the ground up, without the usual British solution of trying to kludge something apparently new (but really rather half-hearted) onto some crumbling antecedent. Sadly, the Transport Select Committee, a group of MPs, has shied away from that glittering chance and proposed the worst possible solution – build a third and even a fourth runway at Heathrow. Such a failure of imagination – to, as our corporate colleagues say, ‘think outside the box’ – is enough to make one gasp and stretch one’s eyes in disbelief.
One reason stated by the Committee for not building Boris Island is that it would mean building a huge amount of totally new infrastructure, when a sounder alternative might be to improve what’s already there. Once again the MPs demonstrate a shocking lack of initiative, even forethought. I can think of three reasons why building a new airport from scratch is actually a good thing.
One – building from scratch means that you can build what is required to do the job, rather than compromise with what’s existing.
Two – if infrastructure already exists, you can bet that it’s already being used, full to bursting. ‘Improving’ it to take more traffic will lead to the degradation of that infrastructure for some considerable time in the interim. Everyone knows what a headache it is to drive along a stretch of road that’s being ‘improved’. Building a completely new road is easier, quicker (the builders don’t have to accommodate existing users) and needn’t be as expensive as one might think.
Three – a completely new airport attracts business, at first connected with the airport, and then more tangentially, as people move in to service it and require accommodation, schools, hospitals and so on.
Another problem with Heathrow is that it’s difficult and expensive to get to not only from eastern parts of London, but from much of the rest of the country. If building Boris Island would take a decade or so, capacity might be increased not at Heathrow but at any number of regional airports outside the southeast. For example, just as a selection: Bristol, Birmingham. Aberdeen, Cardiff, Manchester, Durham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, Humberside, Leeds-Bradford, Newcastle or Southampton. And, Heavens to Betsy, maybe even Norwich. The only thing standing in the way of such considerations is the London-centric attitudes of business and politics.
My selection of regional airports is, I confess, not random. So what do they have in common? They are all served by KLM, direct from Schiphol. So while the politicians remain unable to think big, and continue to flog the dead horse that is Heathrow, other airports in Europe are busily exploiting markets that Londonistas pretend aren’t there, or are unimportant. More fool them.