Tuesday, 1 November 2016

London - the elephant in the Heathrow room.



As we engage in yet another debate over the possible expansion of Heathrow airport, once again the public discussion seems to miss the great big London-shaped elephant in the room. It's a shape that hangs over many of our economic and infrastructure debates in the UK. In this particular case, the plain fact is that the UK does not have a shortage of airport capacity. It really doesn't - there's plenty to spare at the moment, all over the country. Apart from around London. At what point do we have to start asking ourselves about addressing the problem, instead of trying to put short-term sticking plasters over some of the most obvious symptoms?

Now I'm quite sure many reading this will be expecting 'the usual attack on London from the regions' - you know the kind of thing: Everyone in London is rich (just look at the house prices), London gets everything, they have all the wealth while we suffer, they took our coal and left us with nothing, and so on. That's not the point at all - London is suffering, and Londoners (those who live there and those who work there) are suffering. London is hideously overpopulated, and growing, and shows no signs of growing at a rate that is in any way sustainable. On top of that, many people from around London travel in to the city to work there every day. The infrastructure (not just transport - little things like water supply too) is horrendously overloaded, and it's getting worse - we keep pumping in large sums of money to build new infrastructure where we can, though there's little space to do it, but it's nowhere near enough, and it never will be. At what point do we start thinking about addressing the problem from the other end, and actually reducing demand?

This isn't the first time I've touched on this topic. Last year I wrote a blog post about moving parliament, and the associated state functions, out from London (specifically to somewhere around Liverpool), partly to begin to address this issue. We need to go further than that, though - we need to start encouraging businesses and employers to move too (and where they move, people will follow, or at least stay where they are instead of moving to London). In the modern world of technology, the necessity for everything to be physically located in one place so that messages can be passed and physical meetings can be held is a thing of the past. We need to utilise the opportunities offered by such things as telephones, the internet, video conferencing, and so on - we need to stop thinking in terms of putting things together for convenience, and start thinking in terms of spreading them out as widely as possible.

Not only can we now spread things out more, we really have to. London cannot continue as it has done in the past. It isn't just a problem for London, of course, and it is right, I think, to note that the draw of London's centralised economic activity is bad news for the whole of the UK. As the London area suffers from overpopulation, pollution, strained infrastructure, work-life balances dependent on hours of commuting, and so on, so the rest of the UK is suffering from lack of employment (and particularly of well-paid employment), empty housing and stagnant (at best, in some cases) housing markets, crumbling infrastructure that is too poor to attract inward investment, etc., etc.. We have to start to address the issue, and start to rebalance the geographical inequality in our economic activity and (therefore) our population. What we are doing now can't keep on - it is failing everyone.

Some are suggesting that the HS2 project will help by shortening travelling times to London, but I'm not convinced about that at all. I think it's almost looking at the issue slightly backwards. It is expanding the effective circumference of the centre instead of seeking to decentralise. The big danger in doing that is that it falls into the same category as expanding Heathrow - it perhaps addresses symptoms a little for a while, but actually overall provides an expansion of London capacity that increases its draw and increases its economic and population dominance. OK, it might mean that people can, in effect, 'commute' to London from further afield, but it does nothing to stop them having to do so. That's where the problem lies - we need to stop so much of our economic activity, and therefore our population, from being so reliant upon activity in and connection to London.

Now one 'solution' that might have an impact is Brexit, of course. It might have an impact by moving chunks of our financial services sector out of the UK altogether. I'm going to suggest that that would not be a good thing, though. Actually, 'the city' is one of those things that it makes most sense to leave exactly where it is. That doesn't mean that it needs to all stay where it is, of course, but it does raise an important point that I should mention about now. What I'm talking about isn't somehow 'de-populating' the capital city and leaving it to collapse as an abandoned shell of its former self. Far from it. It is always going to be a big city, and always going to be a big centre of economic activity, and always going to have a big population as a result - there's nothing wrong with that, as long as it is sustainable. As I pointed out earlier, this isn't an attack on London at all. What we need to do, though, is create a situation where it is sustainable - where it isn't continuing to try to expand, and continuing to draw people and activity away from other places, and where it doesn't constantly need more and more infrastructure to cope with ever increasing demand. We certainly don't want to tear down London and rip up its gold-paved streets, but we do need to find a viable and sustainable economic (and therefore population) solution for the whole of the UK, including London itself.

As a slight aside, just let me briefly address the question of immigration here, and any suggestion that anything is the fault of 'them immigrants' (which it isn't), 'immigration' (which it isn't), and any suggestion that 'Britain is full' (which it isn't). That kind of nonsense only deflects discussion away from the real problem of centralisation. We have immigration, we need immigration, and immigration is a very positive thing both economically and culturally. We aren't 'full' - in fact, we could very easily build several more cities the size of London in space that is currently occupied by sheep, not to mention the area currently covered by golf courses. We could, but the situation of overpopulation, pollution and failing infrastructure would probably eventually be the same in all of them - it is that which we need to address, not the marginal effects of some people moving to the UK while some other people leave. It's a complete red herring that only serves to block real discussion about real solutions.

As I have mentioned, I believe we ought to start by moving parliament - not only does it make a practical start, though a small one, but it sends a clear and powerful message of intent, and that is important. It tells the world, the regions, and London itself that we're actually beginning to take this problem seriously instead of pretending that sticking plasters like Heathrow expansion will solve everything (or anything, for that matter). We have to go beyond that though, obviously, and the starting point has to be a far more serious attempt to invest in infrastructure in 'the regions', even though we know that in the short term some of it might not be 'necessary' according to current and projected (projected on the assumption of nothing much changing) demand.

That is so important. We need to build the infrastructure to support the things that we need to move away from the capital, and we need to build them before they announce that they are moving (because if we don't, they won't - it is that simple). This is something that the UK has been disastrously bad at, and has in fact taken far, far less seriously than the European Union - we should really see the number of EU funded regional infrastructure projects in the UK as a damning indictment of our own failure for generations. This costs money, of course, but we need to invest, and we need to see our investment in terms of something much more fundamental than 'connection speed to London' (from places that can be easily connected to London, while the rest of the UK still gets largely ignored).

To take a specific example (chosen because I know it well), the Swansea Bay region has a population of well over 500,000. It is currently connected to the rest of the UK by a motorway that has only 2 lanes in each direction for much of its length, and some of the tightest bends on the whole UK network (with the speed restrictions dictated by such things) - it is not enough, and currently there are only plans to try to improve a small part (the part which also most badly effects Cardiff). There is an international airport reasonably close by, West of Cardiff, but no decent road or rail links to get to it. The railway line is due to be upgraded to electric over the coming years, but it still won't get you to an airport other than the inevitable Heathrow (and in order to get to Heathrow, as many people currently have to do from Swansea, you also have to pass another international airport at Bristol).

Now the city of Swansea itself is by no means the worst place in the UK for such infrastructure (North Wales doesn't even have a motorway at all, which is frankly shameful), but what we need to be asking ourselves is why businesses would relocated parts of their operation to Swansea from London, or choose Swansea instead of London and its immediate neighbours? What are the push and pull factors in such decisions, and how can we begin to rebalance them? I'm going to suggest that infrastructure is a pretty big part of that picture - the ability to reliably get people and goods in and out, not just to London but also to the world - but it's not the only one (training and education for the workforce is another, but I'm not going to claim to know all the answers, of course).

Then we need to be asking the same questions about other towns in the region, and other regions. How do we create the circumstances for a more viable and sustainable distribution of economic activity and population around the UK (the whole of the UK). We need to do it not just for the benefit of 'the regions'; but for the benefit of London itself - it's important to realise that, and it's a point I think needs to be made again and again. Regional infrastructure funding is good for London. Regional policy that attracts economic activity and employment away from London is good for London, and good for the people of London. We need to understand that, and we need to think about issues like the proposed expansion at Heathrow in those terms.

At the moment the Heathrow debate, and the whole airport expansion debate, is being dominated by the idea that we need to expand airport capacity in the South East because the South East is where all the demand for it is. We need to think about the problem differently, and from the opposite angle, and realise that the real problem is actually that the demand itself is too centralised in the South East, and that that is unsustainable. Each bit of additional capacity we build there is only going to serve to increase that centralised demand in the long term, while reducing it elsewhere around the country (where we already have an issue of over-capacity and a lack of demand, which is only going to get worse if we don't address it).

And that is a problem with our traditional way of thinking. It isn't 'joined up' - it's all too often been seen as something of a 'battle' for funding between London (which 'needs' the investment because of the overpopulation) and 'the regions' (which supposedly doesn't need it so urgently, because it doesn't have the same problem of overpopulation). We need to look at it in a new way, and realise that the best thing for London is to invest in the regions, as it is the best thing for the regions too. Investing in new London infrastructure might alleviate pressure temporarily, but in the longer term it only serves to make the problem worse by reducing the impetus for people and things to think about going elsewhere.

The best way to solve the long term problem of demand exceeding infrastructure in London is to begin to gradually reduce that demand, and the best way to do that is to invest in the infrastructure that can begin to draw demand away from the London area. We should be working together on that - it's in everybody's long term interests, and especially in London's.

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