No one was more pleased by the Government's confirmation yesterday that it will give the go-ahead for a third Heathrow runway than the business lobby. According to the CBI's director general, Richard Lambert, expanding Heathrow's capacity "makes real sense". Jo Valentine, the head of London First, said the decision would help London "fight for global business in a post-recession world".
In fact, the argument that the British economy will benefit from a third runway for Heathrow has always been – and remains – unconvincing. Bolstering the airport's status as a plane-changing "hub" would certainlybenefit Heathrow's owners, but it is hard to see how it would provide a significant boost to the national economy.
It is claimed that a larger Heathrow is necessary for Britain's international competitiveness. But much of the projected increase in passenger numbers through the airport would result from a rise in tourist, not business, travel. Furthermore, many of the extra flights are projected to be domestic. There is a larger context here too that cannot be neglected. As Nicholas Stern made clear in his pioneering climate change report in 2006, the global economy will suffer unless concerted action is taken by international governments to curb emissions. For all the environmental conditions outlined by the Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon yesterday, expanding Heathrow would be a big step in the opposite direction.
And yet there is one argument put forward by the business lobby that has a ghost of truth in it: Britain's existing transport infrastructure is in urgent need of modernisation. Our domestic transport infrastructure is a disgrace compared with that of many of our European peers. Travelling by rail and road in France, Spain, Germany and Switzerland is a vastly more pleasant and efficient experience than it is here in Britain. Across Europe, the trains tend to be less crowded, more reliable and quicker. Road tolls in several countries help to keep congestion down. And the whole system is impressively integrated too.
Those efficiencies have kept demand for air travel down. As one small example, there is very little air traffic between Paris and Brussels because the train is so reliable and efficient.
We should, of course, be realistic. Britain will always need air links. But there is no reason why Britain cannot rely on the present airport capacity and attempt to soak up greater travel demand by developing other transport solutions. New high-speed rail lines, for instance, would plug British cities into the continental network, reducing the need for new air routes.
The Government seems to accept that there is at least a connection. Mr Hoon yesterday floated the idea of building a new high-speed rail link between Heathrow and St Pancras station in London. But this indicates distorted priorities. The development of high-speed rail should not be thrown in as a concession to opponents of a Heathrow's expansion, but pursued as a desirable objective in its own right. Indeed, any government with the courage of its environmental convictions would be preparing such projects anyway, because rail is the least carbon-intensive form of public transport.
Transport is the lifeblood of trade and business. But the Government, by assuming that air travel is the only route to growth, has hindered, not served, the national interest.