Part of the rationale for constructing a third runway at Heathrow, an airport transparently unsuited to that type of expansion, is an ambition to enhance its reputation as an ‘international hub’. Several of these eerie, parallel worlds exist throughout Europe and include Amsterdam and Frankfurt. I spent a few hours in the latter during the summer, hopping between Lufthansa flights in order to get to and from Russia.
It is a horrendous place to spend time, negotiating multiple security checks and eating plasticky German bratwurst. There is little sense that the visitor is on planet Earth, never mind in Germany. He spends a trance like hour or two in the chill of too efficient air conditioning, impatient to be spirited away to his ultimate destination. Such is the future which the government seeks to encourage at Heathrow. Outside the narrow confines of the aviation industry, ‘hub’ status yields limited benefits.
It isn’t an especially difficult decision for the Conservatives to oppose the runway’s construction. It underpins green credentials which David Cameron wants to emphasise, it tallies with a suspicion that air travel will not continue to expand, the time scale over which it will be rolled our should afford Tories the opportunity to arrest an unpopular Labour plan and it is an ill advised initiative in the first place. The shadow cabinet must be grateful that the government has presented them with a gilt edged opportunity to adopt a strong position. Even before Labour member, John McDonnell MP, made an obviously premeditated grab for the Commons mace, in protest at the Transport Secretary’s announcement.
There could scarcely be a more propitious time for Cameron to outline his environmental programme. Built around a £1 billion investment in the National Grid the Conservative leader’s plans are aimed at encouraging a less carbon intensive society. ‘Smart grid technology’ will allow customers to choose off peak times to use electricity at cheaper rates, more efficiently. Meters will enable consumers to feed electricity back into the grid, for appropriate recompense. A system which is already operating successfully in Germany.
In addition there will be a capital guarantee scheme, encouraging risk-averse energy companies to finance householders to make their houses greener. A Conservative government would underpin loans which could then be recouped through energy bills, made substantially smaller by loft insulation and so on.
No doubt Labour will accuse the Tories of opportunism and gimmickry. But it becomes increasingly difficult to persuade the electorate that the opposition lack substance when it is articulating genuinely constructive policy themes and resisting destructive Labour schemes. In the same way, levelling charges of ‘doing nothing’ appears increasingly silly as the government adopts Conservative ideas to tackle the financial crisis.