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Why does London have more airports than any other city, anyway?

London has more airports than any other major city - which is a bit odd, really. This video helpfully explains why.

When you think about it, London does seem to have a lot more airports than it should. In descending order in terms of number of passengers per year, there's Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, City and Southend, which is ridiculous, as YouTube vlogger and musician Jay Foreman explains in episode three of his Unfinished London series.

Believe me when I say it's a bit exciting (if you're a sad infrastructure geek like me) that Foreman's actually got around to making a third episode - it's been three years since episode two, and the first one came out in 2009. They're witty walkthroughs of the ways London's stop-start, never-finishes-what-it-starts approach to urban planning has made the city what it is today. Episode one deals with the Northern Heights plan, which would have connected the stub of the Northern line with Mill Hill East on it with Edgware, and likely have brought with it thousands of new homes in what is now, still, a semi-rural area; episode two is about the Ringways, which would have seen London surrounded by four ring roads, of which the M25 is the main survivor (and which was abandoned halfway through, thus why the "south circular" isn't).

Episode three, though, is about the capital's airports, which are mostly built on what were aerodromes built in the inter-war period by wealthy plane nuts indulging their hobby, who in turn saw a money-making opportunity in accepting passengers. Yet the first airport in the city, Croydon Airport, couldn't survive after the Second World War as its runways weren't long enough for new, larger planes, and neither could most of the other aerodromes or airports, which found themselves surrounded by urban sprawl. We have Heathrow where it is because it was near the edge of the city, with enough room to be the city's main airport - and Gatwick is even further out because it was the best candidate of the nearby RAF airfields to be London's backup. And, as they in turn became constrained by planning issues, Stansted (an RAF airfield) and Luton (a small regional airport meant to serve the Home Counties) were commandeered to serve ever-growing London. City was part of Canary Wharf's regeneration, and Southend is the most-recent, becoming London Southend as part of a rebranding exercise. That brings us to six.

This is only civilian airports doing international flights, though, because "airport" is a fuzzy definition. There are nearly 20 further airfields and aerodromes within Greater London and just outside it, as well as RAF Northolt - and then there's the fact that some airports that aren't meant to serve London are, nevertheless, as close as some of those that are (like Lydd Airport in Kent), while some that say they're meant to serve London (looking at you, "London" Oxford Airport) probably don't in practice. If you include all these extra types of airport then, well, it's probably impossible to judge who has the most - a city like Los Angeles, or Moscow, will easily match London on it.

Worth noting, too, that Foreman points out that a Thames Estuary airport was first proposed back in the 1970s, before London did what it's always done - take an existing airfield instead, and expand it. History has a funny way of repeating itself.

Here's hoping episode three, part two doesn't take another three years to arrive.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.