Opinion from Lord Digby Jones

Don't just stand there... Do something!

Published Friday 20 September, 2013

Globalisation doesn't take prisoners". "This is Asia's Century". "Export or die".

I learned a long time ago not to listen to what politicians say, but to watch what they do. From all parties lip-service is paid to an awareness of what it takes to be globally competitive, to provide the jobs, to create tax-generating wealth in a fast-changing, ever-more challenging World. Indeed, as we get into the Party Conference season I can already hear the faithful (and the millions hearing snippets and sound bites on the news) being reminded of such with the pithy statements above....and more besides.

Yet through inactivity, vacillation, timorous party political back-sliding, those we elect to govern us are in the process of destroying one of the few globally competitive positions we hold.... A great trading nation... Simply by doing NOTHING.

The acute lack of airport capacity in the South-east of our Country is damaging our reputation as being THE place from which to conduct international business and from being the location of choice for inward investment (perhaps those who say this is alarmist might acknowledge that Germany overtook the UK for the first time last year as being the preferred home in the EU for the most inward investment projects). By doing NOTHING about reaching a decision to solve the problem, we are handing thousands of wealth-creating opportunities to Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam on a plate.

147 million passengers used our South-east airports last year; Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport has six (yes, six!) runways compared to Heathrow's two; Frankfurt Airport is set to increase hourly capacity by 50%; surveys show there is the demand for 45 new destinations to be added to the route network from Heathrow; more flights leave Frankfurt for various cities in China in a week than leave Heathrow for the whole world in a weekend. The UK fit for Asia's Century? Our Country globally competitive? If it wasn't so serious it would be laughable.

Every day investment is diverting away from these shores to other European destinations because investors from Asia and Latin America can get there more easily and our politicians...of all party hues....do NOTHING! They shelter behind the myth that video conferencing is a solution....wrong! Such facilities are a necessary and very useful component in a business' toolbox but the need to "be there" at some point and shake hands will never be replaced. They seem to be running away from the fact that the World is creating more business opportunities in more places every day; it's no good Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband acknowledging this in fine words and doing NOTHING. Waiting until after the next General Election is cowardice.

This is not just London's problem. It's a national problem. People fly into and out of London from and to everywhere. They generate wealth and jobs all over the UK; a self-satisfied delaying MP for a west or north constituency wants to remember that, when she or he is next asked by an unemployed voter precisely what is being done about generating jobs.

UK businesses trade twenty times as much with countries to which there are daily flights than those with a less frequent or indirect service. When I was Director-General of the CBI and again when I was Minister of State for Trade and Investment, I saw evidence of this with my own eyes. A businessman overflying Paris because there was no direct flight to a potential customer from Heathrow. An American changing planes from the States in Frankfurt to move onto India because there was not a direct flight to the Indian city he wanted from Heathrow. Given there must be good, consistent hub traffic to help fill the plane and thus justify the direct route, without essential capacity Heathrow begins to fail as a hub, thus a direct flight to a new Chinese city isn't viable and so Germany appears more attractive to a Chinese investor.

But the hand-wringing, simpering delays go on. Liberals and Tories do NOTHING. Labour does NOTHING. Where is the leadership? Where is the advancing of the National Interest ahead of short term party political expediency?

To wait until after the 2015 General Election for a decision (let alone commencement of sorting the problem) is a job-destroyer, a wealth-inhibitor. Yet the British people get it; in a recent poll commissioned by the business membership organisation London First and conducted by YouGov, 43% of respondents supported an increase in flights and almost half of Britons (46%) recognise that if additional airport capacity is not added in the next ten years then there will be a negative impact on the Country's economic growth. And today, right now, this very day sees over twenty emerging global markets having daily flights from European cities but not from London.

Remember this Mr Miliband and Mr Cameron as you address the party faithful at your Conferences: the lack of a daily direct service to ten emerging economies served by Paris or Amsterdam or Frankfurt represents a loss of £1.2 billion of lost trade each and every year to our Country. Imagine the loss of tax revenue that goes with that, Mr Osborne or Dr Cable; explain the loss of jobs that goes with that, Mr Balls. And all you Gentlemen do is....... NOTHING!

So now, at a stroke, lift the flight cap at Heathrow to allow concurrent take-off and landing; free Gatwick and Stansted from out-of-date price control regulation; invest quickly in better rail links to/from these airports. Give a noise regulator real power to deal with a justifiable concern.

Then, ask Sir Howard Davies to recommend before 2015 which long term choice to adopt for our future..... and implement it!

Don't just stand there.... do something! You are crippling our economy by carrying on doing NOTHING.