A New Runway For London Means Everybody Loses Out

Alexander Groes 5 November 2016

Finally, the government has made a decision on airport expansion. It has been on the cards for years, but the fact that any expansion would upset residents meant that the issue has been so toxic successive governments have avoided a decision like the plague.

Yet, the argument runs, airport expansion is desperately needed. London is a centre of global commerce, arguably only second to New York. If it wants to continue as a place where workers, businessmen and tourists flock from across the globe, London needs this runway. Whether expansion happened at Gatwick or Heathrow residents would be enraged, at least now a decision has been made.

Except, all this attention on London reveals a problem with the way we think about our country and our economy. Look at other big government projects like High Speed Rail 2, Currently estimated to cost £55 billion pounds, with the first phase to Birmingham only finished by 2026. For all that, it will shave off about half an hour in journey times between Birmingham in London. HS2 and Heathrow expansion are part of our fetishisation of London and by extent globalisation. This fetish forces the following logic: we need a third runway to keep us connected to the global economy. We need to make it easier to get to London to allow the benefits of London’s economic growth to spread out to the regions.

Yet it’s not just HS2 or Heathrow, our whole transport system is centred around getting to and from London. The modern equivalent of the phrase “All roads lead to Rome” is “all railways lead to London”. Of course, London should be easier to get to than a tiny Yorkshire village, but our obsession with the capital has meant the areas like the North of England have been completely neglected beyond economic sense. The government has ignored calls from think tanks to prioritise HS3, linking northern cities together. Planned northern infrastructure projects have double the estimated rate of return as the big sexy London projects like Crossrail and HS2. The economic logic behind our London centric view is clearly flawed. Leaving the north with diesel trains converted from buses is a result of this perverted economic logic which promotes London as our “global city” above all others.

“The North” isn’t the only neglected region in the UK but it is an exemplar of how we have over-prioritised London beyond common sense. Since the 1980s the large cities, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester have slowly pulled out of the dive of deindustrialisation, yet it’s a resource that remains untapped. The Northern Powerhouse is little more than empty rhetoric, putting projects that should’ve been done decades ago all under one title. Projects budget have been in the millions, compared to the billions spent on London. The fact the government choose to close the offices of the department responsible for the Northern Powerhouse in Sheffield and move it to London, shows how committed the government is to energising the north.

Politicians, Brexiter and Remainer alike are now lining up to declare that the UK is open for business or should remain so. Brexiter’s declare that leaving the EU will make us more open to the world, Remainer’s have established the group “Open Britain” to try and fight any isolationist Brexit which might stop free trade and movement.  For some areas of Britain, like the 3km2 of The City of London, this is vital, as is the infrastructure to allow it continue to suck in talent and money from the regions and the world.

But what is the point of London being a global centre of capital if this doesn’t benefit, to borrow a phrase from the politicians’ phrasebook: “hard-working people”? At the moment, it doesn’t, most people are still worse off than before the financial crisis. Then even within London, the city is failing to work for residents. Working and even upper-middle class residents are being priced out of areas that have been their family’s homes for years by global customers looking to buy property as a capital investment.

To answer the obvious criticism: I’m not anti-free trade. I understand comparative advantage, how free trade between nation makes each and every nation wealthier. But it is a fallacy pretend that the current situation works for the whole country. Giving the North decent infrastructure, allowing the cities to pool their skills and resources, would not only help the North but help London. If the magnetic pull of London for people like us has a counter, then the massive demand for housing in London might be abated, prices might fall, across the south east. Or, at the very least, we would have the option to live and work in a city where rents won’t annihilate any hope of ever buying our own homes. If our generation, north and south, can’t live decent lives, with goods jobs and homes we can afford, what is the point of being a global country?