Letters: Shambles at Heathrow

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Two main reasons for the passenger shambles at Heathrow

Sir: I was responsible for the traffic forecasts used to make the cases for Heathrow Terminal 4, Gatwick North and Stansted ("The world's least favourite airport", 21 July). I was also heavily involved in work leading to the privatisation of BAA.

It has been obvious to those in the industry for a long time that supply of airport capacity in the London area is lagging way behind demand. I believe there are two central reasons for this.

First, the privatisation of BAA changed the priorities of the company. When it was in the public sector, its first priority was the provision of sufficient capacity to meet demand (taking account that demand could grow faster than forecast).

The privatised BAA's first priority is to its shareholders. This is best achieved by having facilities that are full and postponing capital investment as long as possible. The CAA, as the regulatory body, attempts to balance these conflicting aims through price regulation, but this is not an effective tool.

The second reason is that the effort, in terms of management resources, involved in achieving the development of Gatwick North, Heathrow Terminal 4 and Stansted in the face of opposition by the local authority, umpteen pressure groups and, in the case of Stansted, BA created battle fatigue which, I suspect, still hasn't gone after 20 years.

The planning system is manifestly incapable of handling this type of major decision and the only way forward, is for the government to take temporarily unpopular decisions, but ones which are in the long-term public interest.

Every other country in the EU seems to have procedures that can deliver major infrastructure projects, but we remain stuck in nimbyism. The disastrous decisions to privatise BAA and the railways, for example, make matters even worse.



Flooding's inevitable, so we must handle it

Sir: Flood barriers and walls are not always effective and can in fact create a build-up of water and more rapid flooding which can cause more damage. The reality is that you cannot design flooding out of urban spaces.

Therefore, as the Government gears up to build three million homes, planners and developers must move from trying to resist seasonal influxes of water and move towards designing for flooding and absorbing excess water safely.

This can be aided by simple steps such as incorporating green roofs; creating recreational areas within urban areas; and providing storage areas such as wetland habitats and water bodies upstream. In fact, planners could take this as a golden opportunity to make properties safer but also improve our environment with green spaces and richer habitats for wildlife.

A further problem that must be addressed is our fragmented approach to drainage. Local authorities, water companies, highway authorities and the Environment Agency all have separate roles, with nobody having an overview for the whole catchment, and local authority boundaries bear no relevance to the management of water flows.

With increased development and climate change making extreme weather events more common, we urgently need to look at whether strong, integrated, drainage authorities, which could take an overview and co-ordinate a new approach to living with flooding, are the way forward.



Sir: I was disappointed to hear a local planning officer saying there was really nothing they could do other than stop building on flood plains to avoid even worse flood disasters. But there are measures planners should consider, in view of government plans to build on the plains anyway.

Initially, it could be a requirement for new-build in flood-prone areas to be flood-proofed, even to the extent of treating the ground floor of residential properties as a cellar, or "tanked" basement, with house entrances at first-floor level. After that, infrastructure provision and flood-proofing should be considered, before granting permission.

One particularly neglected area is the requirement, indeed necessity, to separate surface run-off from foul water. It has been poorly enforced on new-build and ignored by owner-occupiers, who rather than clear a choked soakaway, divert rainwater direct into the sewer.

Whatever the cause, the first result of a downpour is that the treatment works has to discharge untreated sewage into the river or estuary. The next effect is that sewage backs up on to the streets as conduits lower down the system reach capacity, and this is even before the river overflows, none of which is very nice.

Now, please can we see some action, rather than just fine words and sentiments?



Sir: This month's National Geographic features New Orleans, and a quote is apposite, "upstream dams and levees built to tame Mississippi River floods and ease shipping have starved the delta downstream of sediments and nutrients, causing wetlands that once buffered the city against storm-driven seas to sink beneath the waves". Geographers have understood this interaction since the 1930s (same article).

Replace Mississippi with Severn, Thames and others, and the delta with Somerset levels and Essex marshes. Are we in danger of repeating a folly?



Sir: Can you point to any climate models, including the one to be published today, that predict increased rainfall in England in summer?All climate models of which I am aware predict reduced rainfall in England in summer. Any increase in rainfall is either for winter or an annual average, where the winter increase outweighs the summer decrease.



Sir: A picture really does say it all. Given the debate on where new homes should be sited (report, 23 July), your picture on the centre-fold captured with sad irony the situation faced by many families. Just behind the rescue boat was a sign to a new housing development called The Watermeadows. When will we learn?



Giant lake under Darfur no surprise

Sir: The article "Underground lake may ease Darfur crisis" (19 July) presents what is a commonly known fact in the Sudan as a new scientific discovery. The existence of underground water in that part of the Sudan has been public knowledge since the geological surveys of that area in the early 1970s.

Under the military regime of Gaffar Nemiri (1969-85), a unique experiment was made in African development. Unfortunately, in the complexity of what is Sudanese politics, that experience was short-lived. The Sudanese ministry for co-operatives and rural development was a short experiment during the socialist era in that country's history between 1969 and 1973.

In what was known as the Thirst Campaign, a pioneering Sudanese minister, Dr Osman Abu el-Gasim, relied on knowledge of the existence of the Nubian Sandstone Basin, a 2.5million sq km area, spanning across the borders of four countries Chad, Egypt, Libya, and Sudan, a gigantic reservoir of underground water. Sudan's share is estimated at 37 per cent of the total area of the underground water, that is, 750,000sq km.

Over three years and several weeks, the Sudanese minister travelled the width and breadth of Darfur, and more than 1,000 wells were dug in villages all over the region.



Labour now 'party of the rich'

Sir: Ten years ago, the new Labour government cut benefits to single parents and the disabled, a decision taken by then chancellor Gordon Brown because he was determined to stick to Tory spending plans.

Now the Rowntree Trust report shows the gap between poor and rich is at a 40-year high (17 July), and Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain, announced single parents will be forced into work and their benefit cut after their children reached the age of seven (report, 19 July).

Ten years ago, I and other Labour MEPs and MPs protested against these cuts; today these measures were welcomed by Labour MPs and the Tories.

Recent work by Prem Sikka, professor of accounting at Essex University, suggests the 84 billionaires who live in Britain pay .14 per cent of their income in tax. So Labour under Prime Minister Brown, just as under chancellor Brown, is now the party of the rich and not the poor.



Westminster failure on public transport

Sir: I agree wholeheartedly that it is absurd that no government has had the courage to face up to the need to provide a cheap, efficient and ubiquitous public transport service (letter,s, 21 July).

In Somerset, it's not just that public transport is expensive; the problem is that it hardly exists. For example, the nearest large town to Cheddar is Bristol, 17 miles away. Lots of people work there and clog up the roads into Bristol every morning and evening, not because they choose to drive, but because there is no other way to get there. There is no bus service between Cheddar and Bristol. Nor is there one between Cheddar and Bridgwater, or Cheddar and Taunton.

This is ridiculous in environmental terms, but it's also absurd in social terms. Young people cannot afford to live away from their parents at the outset of their working lives. Yet the only way they can have access to a reasonably sized job pool is by getting a car, which eats into their wages and contributes to the proliferation of cars on the road.

Dr Beeching has a great deal to answer for. But so do subsequent governments, which have failed to accept that, expensive and for that reason initially unpopular as it might be, a good public-transport system is quite simply essential.



Sir: James Lovelock's book The Revenge of Gaia - much discussed in The Independent at the time - forecasts the collapse of our civilisation unless serious steps to reduce carbon emissions are taken.

If Lovelock is right, we are in an environmental war which the Government is utterly failing to prosecute. So much for the generally accepted idea that the first duty of a government is to protect its citizens.

Protection of citizens in a crisis frequently requires measures which would be unacceptable at other times, and so it is with climate chaos and peak oil. By hook or by crook, people really have to be persuaded out of their cars and on to public transport, their bikes or their feet.

Our streets would be quieter, safer and more congenial, communities would be stronger, there would be less damage to health from noxious gases the added exercise would be good for us, and, best of all, kids could return to the independence of my childhood.

Cars promise glamour and personal freedom, yet in many circumstances and for most people the benefits are more than offset by the disadvantages. Over-dependence on cars has been bad for community and planet, and the generation growing up now will soon by asking: "Why did you waste and damage so much?"



King's bitter legacy

Sir: In the 1960s, Zahir Shah's Afghanistan was held up as a model of positive neutrality. It exploited great power rivalry, getting aid from the Soviet Union to build roads and from the US to build airports. What no one foresaw was that these facilities would eventually be used to bring in first Russian and then American troops.



Mormon doctrine

Sir: Your report "The Darker Side of Mormonism" (24 May) says that, "Polygamy was renounced in 1890 and the Church excommunicates anyone who practises it". Poly-gamy was never renounced. The Mormon Church still holds it as a righteous principle, shown in their scriptures in Doctrine and Covenants 132, and other sources in their official literature. Mitt Romney, the Mormon presidential hopeful, said he hates polygamy, but I am waiting for someone in public to quote from D& C132, and ask him if he disagrees with his scriptures. For the conservative Mormon, there is no room to disagree with Mormonism on official issues.



Recognising art

Sir: Can Stella Vine's admirers ("The many faces of Stella Vine", 17 July) explain how her graphic images, with their literalist colours, twee captions (not integrated with the forms and spaces), and shorn of creative means (perceptual and gestalt skills, metaphor and other tropes), can be called "sophisticated"? Seeing art in its true light, takes expertise in art practice and theory. To see the real face requires the "negative dialectics" of seeing the vision and creativity that are absent from it, but shouldn't be.



Macedonia's role

Sir: The report "Cognac cache revives spirit of war at £2,500 a bottle" (23 July) says, "Macedonia, divided between Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13". No. Macedonia was divided between Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. The Republic of Macedonia was under Serb rule (as was Montenegro) during the inter-war period, but it became an independent state within the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia in 1945.



Plug for plugs

Sir: It is highly unlikely that the manufacturers of mobile phones would standardise their proprietary charging sockets (letter, 24 July). But Kari Olafson will be pleased to know that chargers with a selection of plugs for all major brands can be bought inexpensively at many large stores, such as Woolworths.



All bull

Sir: So, the Lords will deliver a "final verdict" in the case of the Skanda Vale One ("Court of Appeal rules Shambo must die", 24 July). I will struggle to muster even mild surprise if the case progresses to the European Court of Bovine Rights.