Like all parents, I morph into a second-rate, unpaid chauffeur at the weekends, and on Sunday I copped the ultimate horror: a trip to the airport. The nearer we got to Heathrow, the thicker the traffic became.
We inched down the A312 and at every traffic light I became more and more nervous that we would miss the flight, so that, by the time we came to the drop-off zone outside terminal three, I had to bundle the kid in the general direction of departures while fending off two separate officials who were taking down the details of my car.
By the time I had crawled back to London through the winking lava flow of brake lights, the whole enterprise had blown three-and-a-half hours out of the day of rest, and as I slumped on the sofa I reached for the Sunday papers in the faint hope that someone somewhere had something sensible to say; and, within seconds, I am pleased to say that my spirits soared.
There was an interview with Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, and blow me down, he was talking the most tremendous good sense. There was a problem with the traffic around Heathrow, said Benn the Younger, and until that problem was sorted out he doubted very much that we should build the third runway. Yo, Benn baby! I cried. You tell ’em.
Benn’s objection to the third runway is that the extra planes and cars will exacerbate the already serious problem of air quality in the vicinity of Heathrow. He points out that we are likely to be in breach of EU rules before the third runway is even built; and in my view, of course, Mr Benn understates the objections.
Already the new Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon, is showing great wisdom in postponing the decision until January, while he considers the full scale of the problem.
I don’t propose to comment on the threat to marginal Labour seats in London, since that is a party‑political question about which it is possible to have mixed feelings. But we can all surely agree that it makes little sense to entrench a colossal planning error of the 1940s by expanding Heathrow in a way that will have all sorts of damaging impacts on the capital and the lives of its citizens.
There is the loss of hundreds of houses in the ancient village of Sipson, whose Norman church will be all but engulfed by the proposed 2,400-yard runway. There are the points well made by the Environment Secretary, about the considerable increase in CO2 and in particulates. There is the increase in road traffic, and the frustration of the kind I experienced on Sunday.
But above all, when you increase the number of flights by about 50 per cent – from 470,000 a year to about 700,000 – you vastly increase the noise pollution over London.
I am writing this at 11.20pm on Sunday night in Highbury, north London, which is not normally thought of as being under the flightpath, and I promise I have just heard a flight go over. It was audible, though the windows vibrated only mildly.
What will it be like when that plane starts to descend over west London and the wind starts howling through the wheels? And what will north London be like if they are ever so mad as to build a third runway?
The map indicates that Harrow, Camden, Islington, Enfield will all be on the itinerary for planes using the new runway – in other words, that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Londoners stand to be affected in a way that the builders of Heathrow never imagined, while the auditory sufferings of west London will be intensified.
I am a capitalist, a free-marketer, a believer in air travel, but I simply cannot believe that the endless expansion of Heathrow is the right thing for London or for Britain. Why are we the only major country to direct aviation traffic straight over our principal conurbation?
Surely Bob Ayling, the former chief executive of BA, is right when he says that it is senseless to keep expanding the transit market at Heathrow, when these passengers are en route to somewhere else and scarcely invest a cup of tea in Britain.
If we want to compete with Amsterdam or Paris for the transfer passenger market then there must be a better solution, and that solution requires boldness and vision. The Conservative Party has come up with some interesting plans for high-speed rail links into Heathrow, to obviate the need for so many domestic flights within the United Kingdom.
High-speed rail should certainly be part of the mix, but it is not enough on its own. The reality is that this recession will end, and when it ends we need to be able to compete in the long term with other capitals whose main airports have four, five or even six runways. Whether we like it or not, the people of this country will continue to want to use kerosene-fuelled jet engines to get up in the air and travel long distances.
That is why south-eastern councils and the London authorities have decided to look again at all the options, around London, that could save us from the mistake of expanding Heathrow. They include making better use of existing assets, not least Manston, which has the longest runway in the country.
But I believe we should also be brave and consider what could be a beautiful and long-term solution, and one with big environmental attractions. I don’t mean Cliffe, or Foulness or Maplin Sands. There are plenty of people – an increasing number of passionate enthusiasts – who believe we can find a site in the Thames Estuary that presents a minimal threat to bird life, or north Kent marginal seats, and which is nowhere near an unexploded munitions ship, and that could be connected to London by high-speed rail.
We should at least look at this option; and it’s no use protesting that “it’s never going to happen”. That is an extremely weak objection, and one that was made for centuries against aviation itself.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 16 December 2008 under the heading: “Benn the Younger talks sense: no third runway at Heathrow.”]