Is Heathrow airport getting too big

Heathrow airport (picture Panhard)

A major transport initiative such as the proposed new runway and terminal building at Heathrow airport, announced yesterday, provoke mixed feelings from a federalist perspective. Aside from the considerations of carbon dioxide emissions, which aren’t really within the scope of this blog, there is the disruption to life across west London with noise and air pollution and the demolition of hundreds of houses. Can it be justified?

On the one hand, every airport needs to be built somewhere. Federalism proposes that decisions should be centralised if necessary: if every local community had the right to veto such a development in its neighbourhood, no airports would ever be built. However, we are better off with airports, so some kind of centralisation of decision-making is required. (The early federalist writers of the 1930s were often taken by the federal interest in developing transport systems and infrastructure, as opposed to a purely national one.)

That said, there needs to be appropriate compensation for the communities that do end up playing host to airports and the like. It is not correct that the rest of the country should benefit from the development without providing something in return. Is the compensation package on offer to the people living round Heathrow adequate? This is essentially a matter of money, not principle.

But on the other side of the argument, why expand Heathrow at all, as opposed to other airports in other parts of the country? Most people do not live in London after all. Many of the people passing through Heathrow are coming from elsewhere in the UK in order to connect to flights going abroad. Why not have more direct flights? If Heathrow is too choked with transfer passengers, which is one of the apparent reasons for expansion, an airline model that depended on them less might be preferable.

The UK establishment has an obsession with London – if economic activity does not take place in the capital, then it matters less. While certain political decisions have to be taken centrally, there is such a thing as too much centralisation, and the proposed new runway and terminal building at Heathrow airport feel like a perfect symbol of that.

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