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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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.