Heathrow's third runway and HS2 are schemes of Westminster ignorance

23 Aug 2016


As the debate over Heathrow’s possible third runway progresses into its second decade, we need to ask ourselves what the rest of the country has to gain from yet another expansion of a London airport. The economic benefit from a third runway at Heathrow has been estimated at £147bn over 60 years, but who will see this benefit? Likewise the HS2 project represents a fast route to the capital and its jobs while providing a world leading infrastructure project for Westminster to boast about, but will the regions served by the 400km/h railway actually benefit economically or will they simply become part of the London commuter belt?


The offer of more destinations will realistically only benefit those living in the London area as the rest of the country will still have to travel to London to take long-haul flights. Given that you can fly from 21 UK airports to Amsterdam, 17 to Paris and just 9 to Heathrow (Clive Soley, 2005, now 8), an expansion at these continental airports would save people outside of London more time and expense than a Heathrow expansion when connecting to intercontinental flights.


In light of British Airways (BA) operating over 56 flights per week between Heathrow and Manchester and coupled with that airport’s comparatively low runway usage, it would be considerably more cost-effective to expand facilities at the Northern terminal. BA restarting Manchester’s long-haul operations to connect with frequent flights from London would significantly reduce stress on Heathrow’s system while simultaneously opening up long-haul options for northern flyers accustomed to having to first fly/drive to London. Similarly, with BA’s long-haul operations currently split between Heathrow and Gatwick, passengers having to transfer between the two already face the ordeal of landside visa requirements and having to transit across London. Utilising a quick Heathrow-Manchester connection would be no less arduous and considerably less stressful with guaranteed connections.


A further innovative idea would be to operate codeshare agreements between airlines and rail operators such as those already in place between Air France and the SNCF, guaranteeing connections from minor cities such as Strasbourg to the other side of the world through their hub at Charles de Gaulle. This would, however, likely conflict with the private business interests of some.


Surely the utilisation of existing resources, as detailed above, would be a win-win situation for any politician’s manifesto: they would face no backlash from Londoners faced with yet more air pollution without a comprehensive plan for its reduction while simultaneously being seen to expand the North’s transport possibilities and diverting some infrastructure investment north of the Watford Gap.


Likewise it remains difficult to see how a third runway at Heathrow would not simply be seen as yet another Westminster investment in the capital by anyone outside its commuter belt. There is no denying that thousands of new jobs would be created if the project were to go ahead. However, these jobs would be created in areas suffering from acute housing shortages, exacerbating poverty in the region. The problem of people gravitating to London to find jobs as they feel it is their only option would also further weaken the economies of the regions they leave behind and increase their economic deficit. Jobs are in high demand nationwide but the probable catchment areas for any Manchester airport posts are some of the most deprived in the country.


HS2 will likely have a similar demographic effect, if not to a greater magnitude. As travel times to London decrease, the only benefits for those looking to commute between Northern cities will be reduced travel times between Leeds and Birmingham. Furthermore, those communities not served by HS2 will be further ostracised from society as services on the West and East Coast Mainlines are inherently cut due to a drop in passenger numbers.


Westminster has thus far very effectively sold HS2 as a vital part of the Northern Powerhouse project that will see an economic rebalancing of the country, but will it achieve its much-lauded aims? Transport between Leeds and Manchester (and thus Manchester and the North East and East Midlands) will still be equally slow and under-funded until HS3 comes along, if and when it does. HS2 will, in fact, not strengthen the North economically but simply add it to the London commuter belt, thereby solving the capital’s housing crisis and turning the North into nothing more than a suburb of the South East. What is really needed to rebalance the economic divide in this country is not a coupling of the North onto the freight train of the Southern economy, but the addition of it’s own powerhouse, enabling it to plough forward and exploit its own strengths currently left in the sidings of the 1980’s and pre-Thatcher Britain.


Before we spend billions on HS2, let us build HS3, which would actually bring economic benefits to the regions that need it most. After all, the travel time from York to London is already down to 1hr 45 minutes: 15 minutes faster for £50.1bn is not a compelling economic case no matter how you view it. Meanwhile, China’s ever-expanding high-speed network makes the transpennine route look distinctly démodé with its roots firmly grounded in the 19th century. 


Furthermore, both HS2 and the Heathrow expansion plans bring into question the transparency of British politics: the alternative solutions are so obvious that we must ask ourselves if there are ulterior motives at work. It is hard to deny that clientelistic and quid pro quo (not to mention lobbying) practices are likely still rife in British politics and who is to say that Richard Branson and Alex Cruz (current head of BA) have not pushed Westminster to favour the two most controversial and expensive public infrastructure projects of the last century? We would be naïve to think that Britain is immune from the threat of clientelism, having never truly broken from its shackles in its progression from an early modern to a modern democracy.


Successive governments have dictated that austerity is the path to enlightenment since the crash of 2007, yet those same politicians are prepared to spend billions on such illogical and monetarily irresponsible schemes. Our infrastructure is at breaking point due to a chronic lack of investment and for half the cost of a runway at Heathrow or HS2 we could massively expand the rail network in the North, where some trains run 66% over capacity. The congestion on our roads is symbolic of the scars of the Beeching Axe, still worn by towns and cities all over the country (Washington, a north-eastern town of 200,000 souls currently relies on buses as the only means of public transportation). London may have the busiest networks but Crossrail will soon arrive and no doubt be followed by Crossrail II. In these circumstances, HS2 seems like a poor equivalent for the rest of the country - we don’t need get to London at 400km/h, we need to go from Leeds to Manchester quicker than we could 150 years ago. The faster we can get to London, the more divided the country will become and the more the North will decline economically.


We need to prioritise logical use of the limited public funds available, injecting them into the areas that need them most, and revitalising 'provincial' areas of the country over an eighth runway for the capital, serving largely transit passengers from Europe and America to the far east. The Brexit protest vote was a signal to the establishment that something has to change (especially in northern constituencies, where the catastrophic failures of governmental campaigns are obvious) and if politicians fail to listen at this critical moment, then they risk plunging the country into a political black hole – no-one wants to see a choice between Boris Johnson and Tommy Robinson at the 2020 election.


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