There is no alternative

For the benefit of the whole of the country, the government must allow Heathrow airport to expand.

 The recent flurry of proposals to the Airports Commission on how to deal with capacity come hot on the heels of the Transport Committee’s report on Aviation Strategy. In preparing our report we spent nine months gathering written and oral evidence from business groups, local campaigners, environmental groups, airlines, airport operators, air traffic managers, and many others.
 
UK airports handled a staggering 221 million passengers in 2012, 1.4 million more than in 2011. The latest passenger forecasts predict that unconstrained demand at UK airports—with no airspace constraints or capacity limitations—will be 320 mppa (million passengers per annum) by 2030 and 480 mppa by 2050. 
 
The UK aviation sector had a turnover in 2011 of around £53bn and generated around £18bn of economic output. Aviation also supports the economy by providing businesses across all sectors with greater connectivity to international markets. Hub airports like Heathrow are vital for connecting incoming transfer passengers and making flights out to new destinations more viable.  
 
For many years Heathrow has operated with two runways at full capacity while other competitor hubs, such as Paris, Frankfurt and Schiphol, have benefitted from having four to six runways each. Alongside this, the growth of large hubs in the Middle East has threatened the UK’s position as an international aviation hub. 
 
We looked closely at the main options to address the critical issue of aviation capacity in the UK. We rejected ideas for a new hub to the east of London, including plans for a new airport in the Thames Estuary area, as research we commissioned showed significant public funding (£10-30bn) would be required. There were additional concerns around the impact on wildlife habitats, risk of birdstrike and problems with overcrowded airspace. Significantly, our research showed that the development of a new hub airport, regardless of its exact location, would mean the closure of Heathrow. This would have unacceptable consequences for the economy in and around west London and the M4 corridor. 
 
We also rejected the notion of linking existing airports by high-speed rail to form a split-hub due to uncompetitive connection times. Nor would it be feasible to move flights to other regions or airports with spare capacity. Airlines are commercial entities and operate where there is a viable market. Ultimately, we concluded that expansion of Heathrow is the best option.  
 
We recognise that the main argument against expansion of Heathrow is environmental. Noise, in particular, is a significant issue for the hundreds of thousands of people living nearby. It is important to remember that Heathrow did not start out surrounded by quite so many people. A new hub to the east of London might, in due course, also have a large local population with similar concerns about noise. Nevertheless, if Heathrow expands it is essential that its environmental impacts are properly addressed. Local air quality should be improved, planes must get quieter, flight paths and landing angles should be reviewed, and a comprehensive approach to noise compensation must be developed. Shifting Heathrow’s new runway to the west, away from people under the flight path might also reduce noise annoyance. Heathrow’s recent proposals address this issue.
 
Looking at the UK’s broader aviation strategy, we concluded that an expanded Heathrow could better serve the whole of the UK by providing protected slots to flights from regions that are currently poorly connected. We also made recommendations on how the Government should support airports outside the south east, improve road and rail infrastructure around existing airports, and address concerns about the level of taxation, particularly Air Passenger Duty.
 
It is, however, hub capacity that remains the main unresolved issue in the UK’s aviation strategy. It can no longer be avoided. Our recommendation is clear: for the benefit of the whole of the UK, the government must allow Heathrow to expand. 
 
Louise Ellman MP is chair of House of Commons transport select committee. 
To read its report in full go to: tinyurl.com/hoc-aviation
 
London Heathrow. Photograph: Getty
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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution