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The Heathrow Debacle: Caused by a Vacuum in Transport Policy.

When Transport Secretary Chris Grayling rose to his feet in the Commons not one single MP didn’t know that he was about to confirm that Heathrow expansion was the preferred option of HM Government to alleviate the current shortage of capacity, and to provide a much needed boost for trade in and out of the UK in future decades.


The fact that Boris said that he would lie in front of the first bulldozer was the clincher for Heathrow in most people’s minds

However having lived near, and worked at Heathrow in the late ’80’s my memories were of aircraft noise and the stench of aviation fuel if the wind was blowing in a certain direction. But I also remember well paid and interesting work protected by the Unions under in a nationalised scenario.

I left the aviation industry to become a teacher but in the years following privatisation in 1990 terms and conditions as well as the perks regarding flexible working and travel were destroyed. High status jobs have become poorly paid and insecure right across the sector. For many local people working at Heathrow was a family affair and passed down the generations. Not now. The thirst for profit and murky ownership of both the airlines and the related infrastructure has led to flight from the community and an influx of workers who are easy to exploit.

The profit before all else ethos that blights our economy is exemplified in the aviation industry. When the Wilson government expanded Heathrow and Gatwick in the 1960’s the designer Sir Terence Conran was tasked to make sure there was lots of public seating for the comfort of customers. The privately built Terminal Five which opened in 2007 however was the polar opposite. British Airports Authority, a Spanish owned affair instructed, “every square inch must be turned over to retail space”. In the winter of 2010 the UK experienced what every other European country has to deal with; lots and lots of snow. Our airports were closed for two days. Meanwhile BAA posted £1 billion in profits but were only prepared to shell out £500,000 to clear runways.

Overall the lack of any coherent vision for UK transport which it could be argued started with the mutilation of the railways under the 1960’s Beeching Report, has led to vast spending and expansion in the south east. This has resulted in world class travel links such as the Channel Tunnel, Eurostar, electrification and the proposed HS2 rail project, crossrail and the M25 motorway system to name just a few. Meanwhile Hull has been waiting for electrification since 1970 and Cornwall is literally cut off from the rest of the UK when the rail link floods. If you want to drive to the North East the motorway stops at Leeds, and a delivery run between Middlesbrough and Workington involves the conquering of the A66 Pennine Mountain run fraught with tight corners, roundabouts and often chronic weather conditions. Not a Waitrose service station in sight.

It’s a basic law of economics that says where there is investment in infrastructure so follows job creation and therefore more and more investment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that London remained relatively unscathed (infuriatingly there is no GDP figures that exclude London, I wonder why) during the last crash but the Government’s commitment to a Northern Powerhouse will, ironically only cause more wealth to be sucked southwards at the expense of the peripheral areas such as the North West and the East Coast. Investment earmarked by the coalition in 2013 to boost infrastructure in these areas was axed by the Tory majority government as one of their first post election acts.

There are concrete examples of transport run in public hands working better, and more profitably than when in private hands.

In 2009 East Coast rail services were run by Stagecoach. They mismanaged matters and the Labour Government took them over. When Osborne gave the franchise to Virgin in 2015 it was turning in a £220 million profit to the Treasury and passenger numbers had risen by 8%
since de facto nationalisation.

Manchester Airport is owned and run by the Council and has won a slew of awards including Best British Airport. In 2015 the Council benefitted to the tune of £20 million pounds from it’s investment.

Instead of throwing the cards into the air and seeing where they land we need to actually plan our transport network so that it works best for everyone in the UK, especially small businesses who are the most reliant on fast and efficient means of transporting goods and services across the UK. The Government has not really taken transport seriously and it was indicative that Chris Grayling was perceived to have lost out when given this portfolio in Theresa May’s first Cabinet.

Transport policy is a guaranteed meeting killer, but we have to take it seriously as it’s the bedrock of economic policy. A People’s Commission on infrastructure must be the starting point because we must not fall into the trap that nationalisation is the panacea for all ills as called for by the Left Leadership of Labour. Democratic control….. Now that’s a different proposition.


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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