We're wasting what airport capacity we have

When you can get a plane from London to Manchester, it's difficult to argue there's a squeeze on airport capacity.

Tim Yeo, in his argument about why we should have a third runway at Heathrow, chose to focus – at least in part – on the paucity of British flights to China:

What better way to kick-start Britain’s sluggish economy than by boosting trade with China? Perhaps with Chongqing, with 28 million consumers, many enjoying rising incomes. Or Chengdu, with 14 million. Or how about Wuhan, with 10 million? We could not only boost exports – we currently sell more to Ireland than to China, whose population is 250 times bigger – but might also tap into the bulging coffers of the Chinese for some job-creating investment in Britain.

There’s just one problem: you can’t fly directly to those three cities. Getting to and from China is harder from Britain than from our competitors. Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle fly twice as many flights to twice as many destinations as Heathrow. The problem is so acute that the Chinese government is pressing for more slots at our flagship airport.

There are a number of things to point out here. One is the idea that we ought to be trading more with China than Ireland, when trade is – inevitably – geographically focused. We are, after all, far more than 250 times closer to Ireland than China (I would say we are infinitely closer to Ireland than China, sharing, as we do, a border with them, but then a mathematician might hurt me).

A second is the measurement of Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle's capacity by looking at flights and destinations, rather than simple capacity. If Heathrow split all its flights to Beijing across the 160 Chinese cities with populations over one million, it would serve more destinations, but it would also become markedly harder to get to Beijing itself.

But the thing I really want to point out to Yeo is that if we want to have more capacity, one really easy thing to do is stop flying from London to bloody Manchester.

The One World Alliance – the consortium of Airlines which includes British Airways – flies to nine British destinations from London. Two of them – the Isle of Man and Belfast – really are relatively inaccessible because of the Irish sea; but two other destinations, Paris and Brussels, are connected by a direct rail route from the capital. And that's not even getting started on all the other European destinations which are easily accessible via rail.

Obviously, an airport which carries a tiny jet to Manchester may not be able to take a 747 heading for Chengdu. But it could take a plane flying to Nice, freeing up that slot for a flight to Cairo, freeing up that slot — and so on.

What's more, Government policy is already starting to realign to this aim. HS2 will result a 170mph train service from London to Manchester and Leeds, and Deutsche Bahn will shortly begin running through services to Frankfurt am Main from Kings Cross St. Pancras. Plane travel still has the advantage of tax-free fuel, but – for now, at least – rail travel gets outright subsidies as well.

There is capacity in Heathrow, it's just being used terribly.

A surly policeman guards a sign. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle