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Heathrow Is A Symptom Of A Much Bigger Problem

11/11/2016 12:40
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last month we finally got the answer we'd all been waiting for: it's Heathrow and not Gatwick. But before we all move on to the next big story, it's worth taking a second look, not at the location, but at the historic timeline. And what this says about successive British governments' ability to make decisions.

Many people think of the Heathrow decision as something that has taken a long time, possibly up to 10 years. But actually it's taken a great deal longer than that. When I first moved to London in 1967 the exact same argument was taking place then, and that's nearly 50 years ago.

Back then a major debate was raging about where to build a bright shiny new national airport. Heathrow was not in the running. It was considered just another airport - a stepping stone on the way to building the optimum airport solution. After all, Heathrow had become London's premier airport almost by accident, starting out as a small airfield: Harmondsworth Aerodrome. It was never really considered to be the ultimate London or UK airport.

Heathrow was an international curiosity: a major international airport so close to the city, right next to residential housing and just 15 miles to the west of Central London. The feeling at the time was that Heathrow was slightly embarrassing. A bit old-fashioned. A bit close to the city. Far too many people affected by noise.

The general opinion was that we should forget Heathrow and get into the 20th Century. We needed to compete with other great cities; find ourselves the location with the room to create a futuristic airport that would be talked about the world over. And there were options. As I remember they included Cublington, Maplin Sands, Greenham Common, Nuthampstead, Thurleigh, and somewhere rather appropriately called Wing in Buckinghamshire.

It tells you a lot about Britain and successive governments that it has taken nearly 50 years to actually get to a decision to stick with Heathrow. And that even this non-decision is still subject to further debate in the House of Commons; one which is likely to be opposed viciously by local MPs like Zac Goldsmith, who has already resigned from the Conservative Party in protest at the decision.

In my view, Heathrow expansion was the wrong decision. But after decades and decades of hand wringing, I accept that the government had very little other option. However it did have the chance to commit itself to a real alternative outside of London some years ago. But it fudged that to avoid upsetting the electorate.

What has the rest of the world done since the mid-60s, when I first came to London and this debate first started raging? Alongside Charles de Gaulle, Dulles and Narita, other great airports have been built or expanded, many of them in Europe. Holland scaled up Schiphol to become one of the Europe's busiest airports; Stockholm built four extra terminals at Arlanda; Munich moved their main airport right out of the city, building a new airport from scratch, and Athens - despite the country's economic difficulties - built a brand new airport which opened in 2001 and whose international traffic grew by 60 per cent last year.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, our chronic inability to make decisions quickly and then act on them with any purpose runs much deeper than just aviation policy. British governments can't seem to take the bold and confident decisions we need for our future. And this present government under is no different.

The EU Referendum was another example of just this problem. Faced with a difficult question that would dramatically - and inalterably - change the future of the country, rather than make a decision themselves, the government placed the burden of that responsibility on to the public.

I have been in business now for more than five decades, spanning media, music, sports and entertainment. I know the damaging impact this lack of decision-making ability can have on the business climate in a country. As this government seems, up to now, unwilling to make the changes required to benefit the UK, there is a growing lack of confidence in the government from business.

Brexit and Heathrow mean that there is a growing lack of trust in the government's decisions. Do we really fully believe that the Heathrow decision will now not again be challenged, overturned or rewritten? Not really. And as every businessperson knows, there is no greater enemy to investment than uncertainty, and that is exactly what the government is breeding by taking woolly decisions.

The lesson from all this is that you cannot take political decisions based on polls and just following the latest popular opinion. At some point our government - and our politicians - will need to stand up for what they believe in, and stick to their decisions. Heathrow is only the latest example of our government's inability to do just that. Business hasn't lost confidence in the UK just yet, but they will if we continue to make decisions that just don't stack up.

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