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Tim Knox: How to double up on Heathrow - without a penny of public money

Tim Knox is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies which today publishes Double up on Heathrow: a simple, privately funded, affordable and achievable solutionFollow the CPS on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 13.05.33One of the moments of great joy in the think tank world is when you come across a brilliant idea that is both eminently practical and ideologically attractive.

The pamphlet published by the Centre for Policy Studies today, Double up on Heathrow certainly meets both these goals. It is, firstly, a fatastically simple proposal which would almost immediately double capcacity at Heathrow while also alleviating many of the environmental and noise concerns of current residents. This can be achieved by extending both of the existing runways up to a total length of about 7,000 metres and then cutting them in half so that each runway becomes two full-length, runways, allowing simultaneous take-offs and landings. The number of available slots at Heathrow would almost double, thereby reducing delays and improving the airport’s resilience and efficiency. Importantly, this would also allow some runway alternation throughout the day.

Such a scheme would – in infrastructure terms – be remarkably quick to develop: significant new runway capacity could be completed within five years. For local residents, it would also be quiet  – the extra capacity could allow the airport to open later in the morning and could enable innovative noise reduction techniques. Very few, if any, new areas would be brought into the airport’s noise footprint. In addition, early morning arrivals could land more than two miles further west, reducing noise over London.

So far, so good in practical terms. But its attractions go further: the increase in capacity would also be a significant boost to economic growth in the UK which at the moment is being held back by the shortage of airport capacity in the South East (Heathrow itself is operating at 99 per cent capacity). To take just one example of how the UK is in danger of missing out: there are far fewer flights between the rapidly growing Chinese provincial capitals and the UK as there are between the same cities and other European countries such as France or Germany. This is clearly bad both for our exports (remember that the Thames Valley hosts the European HQ of ten of the top 30 global brands) and for inward Chinese tourism.

Development costs are estimated at around £10 billion, a fraction of the cost of any of the estuarial schemes (which start at about £65 billion and quickly rise from there). The plan could also be developed in stages, being able (again unike any of the other competing schemes) to be flexible in meeting real (as opposed to projected) demand. Most importantly of all, it would also be entirely privately funded. So this is no grand project which the taxpayer will have to subsidise for years ahead. As Dominic Lawson rightly said of these in the Sunday Times:
“Transport infrastructure projects motivated more by political vanity than any rational business plan are hardly peculiar to this country. Voters in California were assured that a Los Angeles to San Francisco high-speed train system would come in at $33bn (£22bn), but it gradually escalated to $117bn. The best account of this worldwide tendency was published by California Management Review, in 2009. The paper was titled Delusion and Deception in Large Infrastructure Projects and begins: “There are some phenomena that have no cultural bounds, such as maternal love and a healthy fear of large predators. We can add to this list the fact that, across the globe, large infrastructure projects almost invariably arrive late, over-budget and fail to perform up to expectations.”

So a choice will soon have to be made: a simple, quick, effective and private sector solution to a real infrastructure problem? Or a grandiose, expensive, taxpayer-funded grand projet which will take decades to build. The choice that will be taken will be revealing.


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