Parallels between metrication and airport expansion policy

Ronnie Cohen has observed several similarities between successive governments’ policies on airport expansion and metrication. Although they are completely unrelated issues and there is no link between the two, it speaks volumes about the inability of the British government to act in the national interest and to face down opposition where necessary.

Airport expansion in the south-east is a serious issue because of the need to meet the demand to fly with more airport capacity. Heathrow is operating at almost full capacity and has been doing so for the last few years. While Frankfurt, Charles de Gaulle and Schipol have four runways each, Heathrow has to manage with two and Gatwick with one. Such is the political difficulty with expanding airports in and around London.

In October 2009, before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron said, “The third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts.”. The previous Labour government supported the construction of a third runway at Heathrow and gave it the go-ahead despite strong opposition to it. In January 2009, the then Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon, who served in theĀ previous Labour government, confirmed that a third runway will be built at Heathrow. At that time, the opposition Conservative Party were strongly against the construction of a third runway at Heathrow and promised to cancel the project if they won the election. They were keen to secure a political advantage at that time by opposing expansion at Heathrow, and this may well have helped them to keep several west London seats near Heathrow and win them extra votes there. Unsurprisingly, Conservative MPs with seats in west London are virtually unanimous in their opposition to Heathrow expansion. After the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives formed a Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats, who opposed all airport expansion, including an expanded Heatrow airport, and plans for a third runway at Heathrow were immediately cancelled.

However, David Cameron set up the Airports Commission in September 2012 to look at the options for expanding airport capacity in the south-east, including the option to build a third runway at Heathrow, to address the problem of a lack of airport capacity in the south-east. It would publish its final report after the General Election of 2015.

The Airports Commission initially looked at many possible options for expanding airport capacity in the south-east, including London Mayor Boris Johnson’s idea of building a new airport in the Thames Estuary. Most of these options were rejected and the options that would be examined in greater depth were shortlisted. The three shortlisted options were:

  • Building a third runway at Heathrow
  • Extending an existing runway at Heathrow
  • Building a second runway at Gatwick Airport

The Commission released its final report on 1 July 2015 and unanimously recommended the option to build a third runway at Heathrow. David Cameron was put into an awkward position. Out of all the possible proposals that the Commission initially investigated, they had recommended the very option that David Cameron pledged would not go ahead in 2009. Sir Howard Davies, chairman of the Airports Commission, said:

“Over the past 2 and a half years, the Airports Commission has reviewed the evidence without preconceptions, consulted widely, and followed an inclusive and integrated process. At the end of this extensive work programme our conclusions are clear and unanimous: the best answer is to expand Heathrow’s capacity through a new northwest runway.” The Commission imposed a number of conditions on Heathrow Airport for building a third runway, including a ban on night flights, legislation to guarantee no fourth runway in the future and a noise levy.

There was and still is a considerable amount of opposition to a third runway at Heathrow from local residents, local councils, both London mayoral candidates, MPs, several cabinet ministers and environmentalists. Unsurprisingly, the Government did not make an immediate decision but said that it would examine the proposals of the Airport Commission and make a final decision by the end of 2015.

In December 2015, the Government has confirmed that a final decision on a third runway at Heathrow Airport will be put off until at least next summer, citing environmental concerns. It has been postponed beyond the London mayoral and London Assembly elections of 2016. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said the government would “continue to work on all shortlisted locations”. A decision had previously been expected by the end of this year.

Ronnie Cohen sees the following parallels between airport expansion and metrication policies:

  • For several decades, politicians have dithered about acting decisively to wean Britain off imperial units and fully embrace metric units for all legal and official purposes. There has been talk about extra airport capacity for London for decades. Debate about an extra runway for London has gone on for years. No new runway has been built in the south-east since the 1940’s.
  • Too many politicians are more interested in short-term popularity and votes than leading a change with proven economic benefits.
  • Metrication and airport expansion are both politically difficult issues so politicians try to kick them into the long grass by repeatedly postponing difficult but essential decisions. This is especially true about the metrication of traffic signs (initially planned then postponed indefinitely) and repeated extensions of deadlines for the use of supplementary indications.
  • Politicians avoid facing up and dealing with real problems, namely the measurement mess and lack of airport capacity.
  • Politicians are afraid of a vocal minority who shout the loudest (e.g. people living near airports and their representatives, tabloid press, Eurosceptics, etc.). Opinion in the rest of the country about airport expansion and metrication tends to be more evenly split. Many are largely indifferent. For them, these are not the most important issues.
  • Business clearly sees the benefits of expanding airport capacity and using metric units. They generally support airport expansion. Also, construction and manufacturing are all metric in the UK now. Private road signs are overwhelming metric.

While I do not have any easy answers to the problem of inadequate airport capacity in the south-east, it is clear to me that without any changes to address it, this will remain a problem. I am not advocating any particular solution to this problem but politicians need to face up to it otherwise it causes problems for tourism, trade, business and holidaymakers. To solve this problem, they need to make a decision and implement it.

So where does that tell us about the government’s willingness to take the difficult decisions required to complete metrication and face down opposition to metrication? Don’t hold your breath. Judging by the way that the government has handled the issue of airport expansion, it does not look encouraging. Too many politicians prefer to take the easy way out and kick it into the long grass.

4 thoughts on “Parallels between metrication and airport expansion policy”

  1. I have been doing a lot of renovation work recently on a couple of houses my wife and I own, plus our own house. Whether in the large DIY chains, or in smaller builders merchants, the descriptions, specifications and standards of all materials and products are overwhelmingly metric. Timber (lumber), drywall (plasterboard), kitchens, flooring and carpet, ceramic tile, paint, door lock cylinders and handles, hardware in general, tools and equipment, etc, etc – completely metric. When I talk to sales staff, they talk to me in metric units, without even thinking about it, notwithstanding the fact that my very grey hair might lead them to wonder if I might be an imperial holdout.

    I have said before, and repeat it here – I honestly believe the British public is way ahead of the politicians in accepting – even embracing – the use of the metric system in virtually every aspect of their lives. Yes, you will still find various bits of Imperial being used here and there, but it seems to me that this is as much the result of political lethargy (leaving the public confused as to which set of measurement units they should be using) rather than actual public resistance.

    As for a new runway at Heathrow, as far as I am concerned, it is far too late. Like many others in the nether regions of the UK, I can get a flight on KLM from my local airport to Schiphol, from where I can go anywhere in the world. What I cannot do is get a flight from my local airport to LHR. A new runway at LHR will be unlikely to change that. The world is changing, and British politicians, in failing to recognise that, are guilty of dragging the UK into obscurity. Both the Heathrow runway issue and the failure to completely embrace metrication are prime examples.


  2. A very similar situation exists in the US, where politicians are afraid to make any decision that would appear to threaten their chances of reelection. Thus no progress is ever made on any needed change or modernisation. As a result the US continues to sink backwards while countries like China and Germany move forward. No wonder Time Magazine declared Angela Merkel to be “Chancellor [Leader] of the free world” (Kanzlerin der freien Welt) and the IMF had to let the Renminbi into the SDR.

    The US infrastructure is in serious decay and all of its industries are in a horrible economic slump. There is no chance anytime soon that this situation will reverse. Indecision in ranks of government, an anarchy among the populace only leads to division and division will dive the nation and bring it down. This is to the advantage of nations like China and Germany that are pushing forward at the expense of Britain and the US.


  3. Gatwick runways are like measuring systems, there is no room for two of them.

    Does the South East really have room for another runway and 500,000 homes?
    Not with me in it it does not. Why not Manchester? We need to move trade North, not South.
    France and Germany are physically much larger countries. Schiphol has flight paths over a much less populated area. UK is full, has been for 30 years, a few years ago the UK government was pushing that idea, like metrication, that political bomb shell has stalled also.
    As much as I dislike railways, maybe a decent rail link, (fast, not high speed) joining the Airports would be a better idea. All underground (UK made drilling machines), with the spoil being used to build up the low lying, flood prone areas. Now there is some radical thinking.

    On the credit side, I could (probably have to), sell up and move out, right out of UK.


  4. Whilst it is easy to see a similarity in the way that the two issues highlighted in the article have been handled politically, they don’t really bear comparison.
    The metrication case is a compelling one but has been stalled by a variety of factors that don’t ultimately invalidate it.
    Expanding the airport is much more complicated and does give rise to serious concerns about the environment and impact on people living in the flight path etc. After all, if you lived somewhere where you would be seriously affected what would you do?
    Like the author I am not offering an opinion on whether the third runway should go ahead but I caution against making it seem that the failure to do so it is simply procrastination and populism.


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