Thursday, September 06, 2012

Come fly with me!

So the Cabinet reshuffle has been and gone and the good news for London and the potential economic recovery is that Her Majesty’s Government seems to have shifted in its’ opposition to expansion of Heathrow Airport .

Anyone who has flown into Heathrow in the last 15 years, and I suspect that is most adult residents of the Borough of Barnet, cannot help but to have been annoyed by the time wasted and fumes generated circling over North London and Hertfordshire whilst stacked before being able to land and then the huge distance walking to the arrivals area from one’s plane. The only time I have arrived early at Heathrow was when I shared a flight from Inverness with Princes William and Harry, who were returning from Balmoral and surprise surprise we were 10 minutes early landing at Heathrow.

The Conservative Party opposition to Heathrow expansion (never shared by me) seemed to be driven by the quest for votes in South West London and a supreme form of Nimbyism not worthy of serious Politicians. Anyone who has bought a house in the vicinity of the Airport over the last 50 years knew what they were getting , indeed many acquired property because it was near Heathrow and convenient for overseas business commitments or there own employment. Heathrow is undoubtedly the economic driver for much of West London and East Berkshire. In my years on the Assembly having lost the argument with my fellow Conservative Assembly members I always found myself taking an “urgent phone call “ when votes took place on Airport development.  Colleagues who thought their seats vulnerable to Liberal Democrats, used to lose all sight of the strategic issues around international air travel and go week at the knees worrying that the four by four brigade of Ham and Twickenham would have their summer Barbeques disturbed by aircraft noise .

The attitude of Boris Johnson has always been quite bizarre on this issue. Having achieved Mayor al office he suddenly produced a vague Norman Foster or was it Richard Rogers , the two seem interchangeable , inspired plan to build "Boris Island" or "Fantasy Island" out in the middle of the Thames Estuary . A film of him and Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse on a particularly grey and misty day wearing life jackets and looking rather pale bobbing about on a boat somewhere off Gravesend did nothing to promote the plan as a viable or safe option. Indeed although nobody has any memory in Politics these days you only have to ask for the files from the National Records Office on the proposed Maplin Sands Airport from Ted Heath’s time to know the project was a non starter. The vague talk of “Arab money” funding the project seemed to disappear as that great supporter of Britain the Emir of Qatar rescued Barclays Bank instead. As David Cameron said to me soon after Boris’ election in 2008, “I am too worried about the North Kent marginal’s to go for an estuary Airport”.  The Mayor’s office did no serious work on looking at the raft of other airports looking to expand, there was little interest when I arranged a meeting for the excellent Thanet MP Laura Sandys who was keen for investment in Manston Airport in her constituency and Northolt and Biggin Hill seem to be dismissed without a thought. Far be it from me to think that Boris was only interested in personal prestige in encouraging an expensive floating aircraft carrier.

The attitude of Conservative Ministers to Heathrow seemed odd to me as a supporter of the free market. I began to suspect that some female Ministers had gazed into Zac Goldsmith MP’s eyes and had immediately succumbed to his very obvious charms.  Zac is one of that new generation of MPs of all parties who behave as though they were glorified Borough Councillors and worry about the trivia of their constituents rather than the overall strategic picture and their duty to assist in Governing the Country. Zac' view on car parking fees in Richmond Park was one of the contributing factors that wrecked sensible reform of the Royal Parks (but that is another blog entry).

Likewise Justine Greening MP for Putney despite her undoubted abilities and her charm and effectiveness on the media never seemed to me to have a grasp of strategic issues. I recall a dinner given at a Westminster Hotel for a small and select group of senior Conservative London Politicians ( and me ) by Metronet , one of the two contractors under the disastrous PPP (Public Private Partnership) invented by Gordon Brown that ran London Underground . Everyone at this dinner knew Metronet was on its last legs financially and something would have to be done to resolve the issue just banged on about the state of the tiling at East Putney Tube Station. Well Politics is a funny old game and Ms Greening is now Secretary of State for Overseas Development in which position no doubt she will have to undertake many visits to all those African Dictatorships, sorry I mean worthy development projects, your taxpayers’ money is propping up. No doubt as she circles over Barnet waiting to land after a 12 hour flight from Rwanda she can reflect on the state of British aviation policy and our current lack of Airport capacity.


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