The map which explains why Boris Johnson wants to close Heathrow

It must be political, because it certainly isn't economic.

If you want to know why Boris Johnson has announced a madcap plan to close Heathrow and relocate all its functions to a new airport, just take a look at this map:

The three proposed sites the Mayor has highlighted to take over the functions of Britain's biggest airport are Stansted, already the third biggest airport in the London area; a new airport on the Isle of Grain, in Kent; and a new airport on a new island somewhere in the outer Thames Estuary. Notice the common thread between all the proposals? None of them are in Boris' constituency.

Airports are, as a rule, unpopular in the local area. They are noisy, ugly, noisy, crowded, noisy, obstructive and really, really noisy (source: seven years in the Heathrow flightpath). They bring a lot of jobs to the area, which offsets part of the hatred, but fundamentally they are an example of the sort of tradeoff the state has to make: lives get a lot worse for a small number of people to make things a bit better for a lot of people. Someone has to live next to an airport, and, for the last 50 years, a lot of them have been in south west London.

So it's a very good move, politically, to move an airport from a place filled with people who can vote for you to a place filled with people who can't vote for you. If any of Johnson's proposals go ahead, there will be a lot of angry people from Essex or Kent. But none of those people can vote for Boris – while all of the people in the new aeroplane-free suburbs of London can (and given many of the seats there are Tory/Lib Dem marginals, probably will).

None of the marvellous political calculus involved changes the fact that shutting Heathrow would be a monumentally stupid idea. The entire transport infrastructure of south west London, and much of the transport infrastructure of the South East in general, is geared towards getting 70 million people to and from the airport every year. There are three tube stations, two rail connections, two motorways and a whole load of businesses built based on the idea that there will be an airport in Heathrow. Conversely, the Isle of Grain has one single carriageway and a goods line, and Boris Island doesn't actually exist yet. And that's not even getting into the fact that both the Kentish proposals call for using excess capacity on HS1 which would be put to better use bringing further EU trains through the Channel Tunnel, putting flight and rail connections in direct competition unnecessarily.

We've been calling for more transport infrastructure to be built for years now – but that doesn't mean we ought to junk what we have. If Boris wants to win round south west London to his cause, he's going to have to find a better way than this to do it.

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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.