Imagine if the Lib Dems had been in power in the west of England in the 1830s during the construction of Brunel’s visionary Great West Rail line. 19th century equivalents of ‘Focus’ leaflets (which, on reflection, would probably have looked much the same and have been produced in much the same way) would have dropped through the letterboxes of local residents in affected towns and villages warning them of terrible noise and rural devastation from years of construction activity that would permanently scar their cherished landscape.
Or imagine Lib Dems in opposition in the 1930s, who would have campaigned against those unsightly electricity pylons, towering over all before them like the industrial behemoths they were. Yet again, little bits of paper would have been dropped through letterboxes in parishes up and down the land, warning communities of rural devastation from years of construction activity and a permanent scarring of their cherished landscape.
Sadly, this Luddite Liberalism appears to have reared its bearded head again in the debate around a new London airport in the Thames estuary. The arguments for the airport are fairly clear: we are at the limits of airport capacity in the South East of England and we will lose economic competitiveness if we do not expand capacity to ensure that the booming cities in the rapidly developing BRICs nations, and others, cannot get direct access to London, and through connections, to the world. We need new airports, basically.
Once you accept this, and of course not all do, the arguments for going east of London in particular are clear: we are at the limits of what communities around existing airports will tolerate; the centre of gravity is shifting east anyway, with new infrastructure (notably high speed rail to the continent and the north) and housing being located there; and the fewest number of people will be adversely affected by a new airport in the Thames estuary compared to the other options.
If you look at Lord Foster’s pretty compelling case for the Thames hub airport, you’ll see he adds weight to the argument for it being located in the Thames estuary by linking its construction to the construction of a necessary second Thames barrier. The barrier would not only protect London against rising sea levels but would also itself generate enough electricity to power the airport. It would also allow a new road, rail and infrastructure tunnel to go under the Thames, improving linkages and connectivity in a deprived part of South East England.
It seems the Tories are backing this. If so, it may be just about the only policy of the blue wing of the coalition I agree with. Labour, too, may yet come on board, although Ken Livingstone has attacked it as being ‘anti-jobs’ in West London (oddly he seems to have not realised that it will be ‘pro-jobs’ in East London). It also seems that business will back this with pension fund investment. However, business will not be willing to get involved if there is a perceived political risk to it going ahead. LibDem recalcitrance may therefore put the whole project at risk (although this depends on how likely the party is to be in Government – or indeed in any position of influence or relevance – after 2015).
So I ask, why is the party wedded to no new airport capacity in the South East? Are business travellers from Sao Paolo really going to want to fly to Manchester for a meeting in Canary Wharf? Are Kent residents going to want to go to Birmingham to get a flight to Beijing? Obviously not. Equally, while the case may be strong for a rail line rather than a plane to take you from Birmingham to Paris, the same isn’t true for long distance international travel. There simply aren’t substitutes. Further, while we may not like the fact that planes cause pollution, we will always want and need to get to places around the world, and if we have to fly to Paris or Amsterdam first in order to get a flight to China, we won’t have actually done the planet any favours.
The party should put its sandals away and get behind this visionary project. I hope Brian Paddick and the London Lib Dems, as well as Vince, Nick and Danny, all back plans for a modern airport that meets future needs, regenerates the Thames Gateway, builds our needed national infrastructure, and maybe even frees up land for housing in leafy west London. That would at least create extra mansions to tax!