British nod for Heathrow expansion is vital for the country’s post-Brexit future

Mark Logan applauds the government’s long-delayed decision to build a third runway, which signals that the UK is open for business and poised for an infrastructure boom

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 2:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 6:31pm

In a matter of a few weeks, the political momentum of British Prime Minister Theresa May has truly accelerated. Is an infrastructure revolution under way in the UK? First it was the eventual thumbs-up to the Hinkley Point civil nuclear project. Then we saw May deliver a “hard Brexit” message at her first Conservative Party conference as leader. And now another momentous decision has finally happened – the green light to build a third runway at Europe’s busiest airport, Heathrow.

Long-delayed UK airport plan to finally take off, with government backing Heathrow expansion

This was a difficult decision for May and her government. The Heathrow expansion has always been seen as a poisoned chalice, and successive UK administrations have fudged the decision. Literally millions of people live in the surrounding area and flight path of Heathrow. This is largely why former prime minister David Cameron initially employed an independent body to review the best options to improve the UK’s already clogged-up aviation system. And, despite a recommendation from that body to opt for Heathrow, Cameron decided to yet again kick the decision into touch until political capital and public opinion would allow for it.

We’ve already seen the political fallout from the decision. At the highest levels, the foreign secretary and former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said he thinks the third runway is undeliverable. Lawmaker Zac Goldsmith – a candidate for London mayor earlier this year – said he believed the government had taken the wrong course and pledged to resign as an MP to force a by-election.

However, I and many others would object to Johnson and Goldsmith’s lack of foresight for the UK’s needs in the 21st century, especially in a post-Brexit future. This type of stasis is the wrong course. The infrastructure revolution must happen.

In a 2015 piece, The Economist magazine quipped that while the UK had prevaricated over whether it should build a new runway, China had built 80 new airports. It really is high time for the UK to shed its Nimby mentality and take the difficult decisions for future generations. The same applies in the area of housing. Analysts say communities are often opposed to new housing developments due to noise, inconvenience or other reasons. However, when the detractors are asked, Where are your kids going to be able to afford to live, given the lack of supply?”, there is often a realisation that short-term inconvenience can yield long-term benefits to the greater number.

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Britain will benefit from an expansion of its aviation capacity. The country was famed in the 19th century as a maritime power. It now has a real opportunity to become one of the leading global aviation powers, with direct commercial benefits to UK business.

Expanding Heathrow will send a strong signal to the world that the UK is open for business. Indeed, it would like to see a surge in flight paths from many of those new airports in China. The previous Conservative cabinet liked to talk about how we were operating in a global race. Well, with a new runway, the UK will be able to add a few more aircraft to the race.

And let’s not forget that China has a tangible interest in the success of this project – China Investment Corporation, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, has a 10 per cent stake in Heathrow. The government said the new runway is expected to bring economic benefits to passengers and the wider economy worth up to £61 billion (HK$576 billion), and create up to 77,000 additional local jobs over the next 14 years.

Hong Kong airport needs a third runway as much as Heathrow does

Questions will remain, however. For one, will the environmental impact and concerns be appropriately handled throughout the course of the expansion? There will be many hurdles to overcome, including a vote in Parliament in 2017/2018, and the usual suspects of finance, logistics and legal challenges.

This will be a bumpy ride, but one worth getting on board for in the UK’s post-EU destination.

Mark Logan was head of communications and spokesman at the British consulate general in Shanghai from 2012-16 and a global communications adviser to Chinese organisations