Andrew Vine: Political flap at Heathrow sparks air rage in North

IF anybody would like to see a textbook example of the worst sort of London-centric navel-gazing in economic policy, today provides Exhibit A.

A new runway at Heathrow will divert attention away from Yorkshire's transport needs, says Andrew Vine. Do you agree?
A new runway at Heathrow will divert attention away from Yorkshire's transport needs, says Andrew Vine. Do you agree?

The likely announcement that Heathrow is going to get a third runway will send the capital’s political classes into a ferment of excitement or rage.

But for the rest of the country north of the Watford Gap, it will produce nothing other than a big, fat “So what?”

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All of us in the North have grown wearily familiar – and righteously annoyed – at the institutional economic bias towards the South East that is perhaps the most profound issue that unites across party divisions.

Even by those standards, the expansion of Heathrow that has sent successive governments scuttling in fright for cover for the past 50 years is remarkable.

The amounts of time and argument expended on discussing this corner of west London beggar belief, but they pale beside the eye-watering cost that is likely to be £17.6bn.

To put this monumental sum into context, it is the equivalent of 14 per cent of this year’s total budget for the NHS of £118bn, or roughly four times the £4.4bn the Government trumpeted last month that it had recently spent on building new schools.

And that £17.6bn is, of course, just the start. The familiar spiralling of costs means the final bill is likely to be much higher, especially if the M25 has to be partly re-routed.

That’s before the legal wrangling starts. The sound you hear faintly in the background is the clinking of glasses being raised by the section of London’s legal community specialising in planning disputes, which can anticipate a nice little earner out of court challenges for years to come.

Because additional aircraft aren’t going to be taking off any time soon. Even in the unlikely event of everything going smoothly, it will be 2026 before the runway is open, but there have been suggestions that legal action could delay it a decade beyond that.

The chances are that Theresa May will be long out of office and writing a self-justification of how Brexit actually turned out, as part of her memoirs, before the first day’s work is done.

It’s tempting to brand the Heathrow scheme a white elephant, but that wouldn’t be altogether accurate. It will be good for the budget airlines that whisk Londoners off for their annual fortnight in the sun, and profitable for the airport shopping malls.

Nor can the assertions of the South East’s business community that an expanded Heathrow will bring significant economic benefits be dismissed.

But for the remainder of the country, an expensive white elephant is exactly what a Heathrow expansion is, and the brouhaha surrounding it an irrelevance against the backdrop of profound economic problems that continue to blight Yorkshire and the rest of the North.

Should we care if Richmond Park MP Zac Goldsmith intends to resign from the Conservatives over the issue and stand-for re-election as an independent to oppose the scheme? Or if Boris Johnson postures and claims he will lie down on the new runway to prevent planes taking off?

Actually, no. Not at all. They are just high-profile personalities in a sideshow that does nothing except soak up ministerial time and public money for no widespread benefit.

No convincing case has been made that expanding Heathrow – or Gatwick – will spread any discernible benefits beyond the already prosperous South East.

Neither even brings the prospects of better links to the rest of the world – the days when flying outside Europe involved either starting from London or catching a connecting flight there are long gone.

In a month’s time, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, will deliver his first Autumn Statement that should start to set out the practical measures of how the Government intends to restructure the economy in the years ahead.

But nobody should hold their breath for announcements to help the North on anything like the scale of what is planned at Heathrow.

Will he pledge £6bn – about a third of the new runway cost – to drive a road tunnel through the Pennines? Unlikely. Or make solid commitments to funding high-speed rail between the east and west coasts? Probably not.

How different the North would look, and how much more optimistic it could be, if investment on the scale being poured into west London were spread between the cities which aspire to be the Northern Powerhouse.

But the completely disproportionate attention given by the Government to airport expansion in the South East is illustrative of the blind spot it shares with previous administrations about the needs of the rest of the country.

And until that changes, the long years of wrangling ahead over Heathrow will ensure that it remains Exhibit A.