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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.