Who needs airports when we can’t afford to keep planes aloft?

by Pat Dodd Racher, September 4 2012

By world standards, Heathrow is a tiny airport, less than 7 square miles. King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia extends over a staggering 485 square miles. In Canada, Montreal-Mirabel is 221 square miles. The most extensive in the USA, Denver International, is 85 square miles.

The Chinese are, it is rumoured, keen on the idea of a super-size airport in England,* west of Heathrow, which could cost £60 billion directly (and in my view a lot more indirectly, in community breakdown and loss of good land under concrete). £60 billion on its own  is almost £1,000 for every man, woman and child in the UK.

If ‘Middle England International Airport’ ever grows beyond conjecture, imagine the ferocity of opposition to the sequestration of maybe 15 to 20 square miles of prime countryside. For comparison, Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris is 19 square miles – but France is a bigger country than England, and pressure on land is less.

A former RAF airfield like Hampstead Norris (or Norreys) in Berkshire could possibly be among the candidate sites. (This is merely conjecture, an example of a stretch of countryside that might be considered.)  The airfield lies on the Yattendon Estate, which is owned by the Yattendon Group plc, a private company with operations in local media, marine leisure, property and agriculture, and owned by the Iliffe family. Hampstead Norris is part of the wide belt of electoral Blue surrounding London, the prosperous shires with Conservative MPs, in this case Richard Benyon, MP for Newbury, who is at the time of writing the minister for natural environment and fisheries. The rolling downs and green valleys west of London are the True Blue heartlands, full of Conservative MPs whose votes could be weighed rather than counted. David Cameron has his seat here in Country Life territory, at Witney.

Airports have to be connected to cities, from a conventional viewpoint the the faster the better: more infrastructure, more jobs and but more land sterilised. The Conservative voters in the Blue Zone would not want their homes to be demolished for runways, roads  or train lines to please Chinese investors. Chinese investors would expect to make money, but where would the business come from?

We are crashing against the barriers of finite resources, such as the oil which is refined into aviation fuel.**  Even if aviation fuel is made a political priority, or if biofuels replace fossil oil, fuelling planes will become a lot more expensive and thus fewer people will fly. Biofuel crops compete with food crops for soil, water, fertiliser and agrochemicals, and supply shortages push prices up. Fossil oil has to come from more and more hostile environments, at lower and lower ratios of energy output to energy input, pushing prices up. The global population is still growing rapidly, pushing prices up. Even the new middle classes in China cannot create new wealth when the world is running out of easily drillable and easily mineable resources. They may get richer, but others – Europeans, Americans – will become poorer.*** I believe we would be better off looking after our remaining farmland and making do with the airports we already have.

If communities want a say in how land is used, rolling back the state and giving more power to private businesses is a good way to stop them. Where large blocks of land are in single ownership, it is relatively simple for developers to negotiate for mega projects. It’s much more complicated when there are hundreds, even thousands, of separate owners. Yet with rising income inequality, the gap between large landowners and everyone else is expanding.  In a more unequal Britain, it will be tougher for the not-so-wealthy to make their voices heard, and easier for a new airport to rise on once fertile fields.

* ‘Secret plan for four-runway airport west of Heathrow’ by Mark Leftly and Matt Chorley, Independent on Sunday, September 2 2012

** http://peakoilmatters.com/2010/07/09/peak-oil-impact-7-a-first-look-at-air-travel/

*** See ‘How energy shapes the economy’ by Gail Tverberg, http://ourfiniteworld.com/2012/09/03/how-energy-shapes-the-economy/