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Heathrow & housing: UK's planning disease of faux-democracy holding back progress

by Andrew Teacher

Brits love to snarl bitterly at China on account of pollution, human rights and the ease with which you can buy knock-off goods or rip-off Western IP. Yet they know how to build infrastructure - quickly.

Whether or not the dozens of airports or thousands of posh city centre pads China’s been building recently will all be profitable is another matter. But with Britain seemingly back at square one in the Great Runway Debate, floundering when it comes to dealing with renewable energy and decades away from delivering the housing successive governments lie about, the moral high ground seems to be getting us nowhere.

During my time at what was then BAA five years ago, we couldn’t have the Third Runway debate publicly. National newspapers – which have in the last week been sticking the knife into the Tories for not backing Heathrow expansion – were all against it.

The U-turn in media opinion has to a large degree been led by the prevailing winds of common sense proving you can’t operate on a knife-edge without operational efficiency being sliced whenever it’s windy, foggy or someone leaves a bag next to Costa.

Of course, there are very good reasons to oppose Heathrow expansion just as there are for and against Gatwick. Alistair Osborne’s column in The Times was rather astute in predicting that Gatwick’s estate agents could find gainful new employment working on the baggage carousels.

A lot my current day job involves advising property developers and investors who are held back by the same ridiculous web of nonsense: planning. Under the illusion that everything is “democratic” anything not to the liking of the minority can somehow be held up, often in perpetuity.

Rather than by a system of outright democracy – where the good of the whole is considered – planning in Britain favours self-interest. Local politicians duly ignore policy and process to place their own views ahead of what’s right. And as a result, tens of millions of pounds of public money is wasted each year in court when ridiculous decisions are overturned.

Nobody should be carte-blanche to do anything but we need to stop playing politics with everything and using airports, housing and power as government kick-balls.

Blackstock, the policy and communication consultancy I now run, published a planning manifesto in partnership with Addleshaw Goddard, a law firm that works with HS2, Sainsbury’s and many large developers. In it we called for a single, long-term national plan to agree infrastructure for a generation. Canada has this.

We also called for London to be turned into a five-borough metropolis, like New York. This was widely covered by the BBC at the time and hilariously drew anger from much of the establishment.

For what it’s worth, my view on Heathrow is that we need to expand it and secure our immediate transport needs. We should offer large incentives for greener planes and tax the hell out of the dirty ones, ring-fencing that cash for renewables. Of course there will be fall-out, but many of the people who live round the corner did not move there before the airport existed.

Ensuring that people are fairly compensated for homes that need to be bought – much as we did for the Olympics and will do for HS2 – is crucial.

Heathrow is a hub airport – where short-haul flights feed long-haul jumbos – and this makes it a fundamentally different offer from Gatwick or other regional airports. We need these long-haul links to support our economy and they can only work with the right economies of scale.

If the business lobby groups who shouted angrily this week had turned the screws on MPs before the election maybe things would be different. The corporate members of London First and the Chambers of Commerce employ hundreds of thousands of people. So while companies don’t vote, these groups could have harnessed the support of employees to enact change.

This didn’t even cross their minds.

Ultimately, Heathrow is the best short-term solution we have, however flawed it may be as a solution. Over the long term, we should indeed look at regenerating the eastern side of Britain with a new airport forming part of a new commercial centre.

One positive outcome from all of this could be that if Heathrow did shut there’d certainly be enough room to build tens of thousands of homes. It might just take them a while to get to the airport.

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