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21 January 2013
On 20 January 2012 The Telegraph reported that BA and Heathrow airport (formerly known as BAA) were locked in a 'blame game' about the disruption caused by the recent snow.
Without wading into this particular debate (I want to use this issue to illustrate a wider point rather than to focus on the fortunes of Heathrow specifically) it is true that Heathrow operates at very close to maximum capacity. As I understand it's in the region of 98%. This is unusual and carries the risk that any adverse events will necessarily affect flight schedules.
Think about it: flights are normally spaced a certain distance apart. One can, on a clear day, see the 'stack' of aircraft in the sky waiting to land at Heathrow. Depending on the routing of traffic one can also, say in a back garden in Windsor, know that one will be deafened at regular 90-second intervals by planes overhead. If anything happens – say adverse weather conditions that are fortunately so rarely encountered in England – then safety requirements dictate that the spacing needs to be wider. So flights would be progressively delayed. There are only so many hours in the day and in such a situation cancellations would follow.
So why do we not either increase Heathrow's capacity, or reduce the number of flights to Heathrow, or find some other solution?
Therein lies the planning conflict and the seeds of the wider points I would like to touch on. Adding capacity – an extra runway – will increase noise pollution, will significantly disrupt the local community and so on. Reducing the number of flights runs the risk of losing Heathrow's 'hub' status to Frankfurt or Charles De Gaulle, with significant adverse economic (and prestige) consequences. Attempting to disaggregate the 'hub' by diverting some flights to say Gatwick apparently won't work for logistical reasons. We are persuasively told that hubs just don't work that way.
Which leaves moving Heathrow. But that will entail significant adverse consequences for the entire region that has developed symbiotically with Heathrow, including the very important M4 corridor. And where does one move it to? The proposed 'Boris Island' in the Thames estuary is not uncontroversial. It has environmental consequences and economic consequences (with inevitable losers and winners). Isn't there then a relatively simple way in which one can distil all the gains and losses of the various options in order to weigh them all and determine the 'winner'?
This is not as easy as it may at a first glance appear. The argument is in large part an economic one: which course of action will result in the greatest gains? But the answers that are provided are not straightforward. There is of course some disagreement about the costs involved in the different options.
The biggest disagreements in the economic argument do however arise where the future impact of a particular course of actions is assessed. We simply do not know with sufficient confidence how the future will unfold. How will different variables – including say the shift of economic influence from the West to the East – interact with each other to produce a particular playing field? Aristotle may have said that 'Piety requires us to honour truth more than our friends'. However, the truth is often difficult to discern and our friends, and the beliefs they expect us to manifest, are usually immediately present!
But notwithstanding these difficulties the economic argument (or perhaps more specifically the pareto optimality argument – the one about which course of actions result in the greatest aggregate economic advantage) is not the only, or even the most difficult one. Is it fair for pain to be inflicted on party A in order for party B to benefit? Can I force someone to suffer a £10 loss when this will result in an £11 gain for another? Most of us will say not usually: that way lies anarchy and a Mad Max future.
Can we not, however, sacrifice the individual's interests for a collective good? Do we not do this all the time? Isn't this inherently what the tax system is about? Aren't many planning disputes characterised by this?
This photo, from the Guardian of 22 November 2012, poignantly illustrates this
Regrettably for supporters of the underdog, that Chinese man's house has since been demolished!
Closer to home, can the debate about the HS2 railway not also be seen to illustrate a similar point?
The answer to the general question of sacrificing the interests of some for the interests of others is 'yes, but…'. Where a clear and demonstrable gain to many can be demonstrated to be the result of a particular inconvenience for some we do often, in the world of practical politics, allow this to happen. ('Proper' philosophical justification is a bit more difficult!) But even there we recognise certain limits.
For instance, few of us would now advocate killing individuals to assuage the anxieties of the many (as one could argue many societies did in the past under the banner of witchcraft). Of greater practical importance: should we, in the case of a particularly heinous murder, alleviate the anxieties of society by labeling an innocent man as guilty and imprisoning him? Is this not for the greater good?
Again, we would say no. However, it is undeniable that law enforcement bodies everywhere are under considerable pressure to find a suspect in cases that have a large public interest component. This results in the incarceration of at least some innocents, as has been well documented over time in countries that maintain proper public records of these things.
When we place individual interests against the environment, or against a particular state of nature, the arguments are also difficult. 'Boris Island' contains elements of this, as does HS2. Not very long ago I came across a property that was for sale in an area of outstanding natural beauty. It consisted of a plot of land, and existing smallish and old house, and planning permission for the demolition of the existing house and the construction of a larger house.
The permission for the construction of the new house contained a number of caveats. These included the provision that if any Great Crested Newts were found construction was to be halted immediately and the proper authorities contacted.
It would perhaps be unsurprising if the person who invested hundreds of thousands in such a property wished for the demise (or at least the Not In My Back Yard status) of the Great Crested Newt! How do we balance environmental questions against the needs of individuals?
I will explore some of these questions – the collective versus the individual and the status of the environment in a future blog post, together with a sharpening focus on some issues that are of relevance to our property market. Watch this space!