It really is extraordinary that more homes, families and villages are being blighted by yet another plan for a third runway from Heathrow's stubborn bosses, to boost their shopping centre with airport attached.
No doubt it will be accompanied by another of those dubious economic studies which add up all the potential benefits of more flights to China, but don't subtract the costs of all he disbenefits of the extra flights, from noise and carbon emissions, and to health.
The future of Heathrow currently divides the Conservative Party, but there is at heart a more fundamental argument about whether we really make progress by increasing the number of economic exchanges in the economy - the meaning of 'growth' - or whether somebody has to exercise some kind of judgement about what is good 'growth' and what is simply destructive.
Sometimes, you just have to subtract - there are disbenefits. The apotheosis of growth over everything that can't be put into a cost-benefit calculation is, in the end, a corrosion of the language. If we pedal this kind of idea, one day we may be unable to express the reason for our unease as they chop down the forests, demolish the parks and villages, in the name of growth. We will only be able to look at a forest and see the potential paper - just as airport operators can only look at a village and see a potential runway.
All this reminded me of the crazy story of the biggest cost-benefit analysis ever undertaken, to choose the site for a Third London Airport in 1969.
The government had rejected the preferred site at Stansted in Essex, and for the next two and a half years the commission chaired by the senior judge, Mr Justice Roskill, combed the evidence. To make sure there was a choice of sites, the think-tank the Town and Country Planning Association put in their own planning application to build an airport at Foulness, on marshland off the Essex coast much-frequented by Brent Geese - an early version of Boris Airport.
The Roskill Commission was determined to work out the answer mathematically. They would do a cost benefit analysis on all the possible sites - the biggest analysis of its kind ever carried out. They would put a value on the noise of aircraft, the disruption of building work, the delay of flights, the extra traffic and they would calculate the answer.
For the Roskill Commission, there was going to be no value judgement at all. The figures would speak for themselves. And there was the mistake.
To avoid any chance of judgement and to keep the process completely ‘scientific', the measurements were put together in 25 separate calculations. They were only added up right at the end of the process. And to the horror of some of the members of the commission, when the final addition was made, the answer was wrong.
The site they felt was best - Foulness - was going to be £100 million more expensive in cost benefit terms than the small village of Cublington. After 246 witnesses, 3,850 documents, seven technical annexes and 10 million spoken words, some of the planners on the commission felt cheated.
In public, they stayed loyal to Roskill. The commission was excellent, said Britain's most famous planner Colin Buchanan - a member of it – “it just got the small matter of the site wrong".
The team had managed to measure the exact cost of having too much aircraft noise by looking at the effect noise tended to have on house prices. But when it came to measuring the value of a Norman church at Stewkley, which would have to be demolished to make way for the runway, things got more confused.
How could you possibly put a money price on that? One joker on the team suggested they find out its fire insurance value. Everyone laughed, but the story got out and reached the press. Doing it like that would measure the value of the church at just £51,000.
A fierce political debate erupted. Commission members were accused of being 'philistines'. John Adams, from the University College geography department, drew up an alternative plan. Using similar cost-benefit methods, he showed that the cheapest option would be to build the airport in Hyde Park – but that Westminster Abbey would have to be demolished.
The satire didn’t work: the Sunday Times published a letter from a retired air vice marshal congratulating him for recommending Hyde Park for an airport, and pointing out that he had proposed exactly the same thing in 1946.
And there is the point. If you believe you can really sum everything up in terms of price, you have gone beyond satire.
Saturday, 8 June 2013
Would Heathrow ever stop expanding?
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The idea of being able to quantify all costs and benefits in a value-free way remains well embedded in spite of it being nonsensical. But, about the little matter of Heathrow. In my opinion, Heathrow and its surrounding area are highly developed and will remain so. We are better off continuing development in the same area and increasing its density rather than opening up new areas for development. So I suggest keep developing LHR until it comes out of everyone's ears if that's what it takes to protect other areas from a new airport being built.
Shopping centre at heathrow?
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