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Heathrow breaks out of 20-year-old holding pattern

Let me start by saying I’m well aware that there are some seriously dubious working practices on building sites and infrastructure projects in some parts of the world, and that a good dose of trade unionism would certainly save lives and improve conditions for large swathes of exploited workforces around the world, not least in the Middle East and parts of Asia.

In the UK, however, we seem to have become so sensitive to every possible objection for doing anything in terms of big infrastructure or transport projects that they never actually get done at all and our hardware becomes more and more dilapidated affecting our competitiveness. This directly affects delegates' travel plans and perceptions of our destinations ability to cope.

The UK transport system, despite the billions apparently poured into it, seems to creak on with passengers paying some of the highest ticket prices in the world for trains, tubes and buses, while being crammed like sardines on popular routes which frequently run late or not at all – and which simply can’t cope with any weather out of a mild comfort zone.

My own monthly travelcard in London costs a hefty £240. As I  waited in the winter – which this year extended to April – on Vauxhall station, a light dusting of sleet was usually enough to cause havoc to the system.

A few months earlier I’d been aboard trains in Russia ploughing through two-foot deep snow drifts and still keeping to timetable (cars and buses over there are fitted with quick and easy winter tyres with extra grip for snow, too).

On Global Exhibition Day The Times leader, 6 June, 'Off the Rails' thundered: "Yet again Britain is facing travel chaos. There is little point in a transport secretary who fails to hold train companies to account...chaos reigns on lines around the country." 

Indeed, Govia and Northern managed to put new timetables in place before training enough drivers to fulfil them. Overrunning engineering work - par for the course these days - just exacerbates the problem.

Just over a month on from 'winter' in London and the thermometer is up past 26C and yet the heater, of course, is still on many trains, pumping out hot air and eating up the electricity. No worries for our train operators though, as we’re the ones paying the bill.

And, while we are quick to praise our UK destinations and events professionals rightly as world-class operators on the global stage in organising events such as Olympics, football tournaments, festivals and major exhibitions and events, our cranes swing painfully slowly when it comes to putting the necessary infrastructure in place.

I’ve gone to sleep in both Dubai and China and looked out of my hotel window of a morning to see a whole floor has been added to new-build skyscrapers by morning.

In Kingston-Upon-Thames it has taken two years to sort out the road crossing across the road from the rail station and the cones are still out.

Never mind, the 20-year wait for a third runway at Heathrow looks like it might only take another six years to realise, following the cabinet finally commiting to approve a new £14bn runway plan. Ministers claimed the decision, made 5 June, as “a historic moment” for the UK. ‘Historic’, I agree, in terms of entering the Guinness Book of Records, perhaps, for the longest decision to approve a runway in history?

Meanwhile, Frankfurt, Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle and dozens of other cities worldwide have four or more runways already.

Of course, the Heathrow decision has come after a process of consulting various interest groups and transport secretary Chris Grayling announced £2.6bn in compensation for residents and noise abatement measures. All very admirable, but surely we can put a new structure in place to speed these processes – 26 years for heaven’s sake!

The expansion is estimated to create about 60,000 new jobs and generate about £70bn in total economic benefits by the 2050s, as indeed the UK events lobby has long argued.

The last Labour government also backed the idea of a third Heathrow runway and even won a vote on it in 2009, but that plan was scrapped.

The farce has included then foreign secretary Boris Johnson, MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip in west London, vowing to "lie down in front of bulldozers" to prevent Heathrow’s expansion. While fellow Nimby MP Zac Goldsmith at least had the decency to resign his Richmond Park seat in 2016 over the issue.

And the discord is not confined to the Tory party. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell - whose Hayes and Harlington constituency could see homes demolished - is opposed, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges there is a demand for increased airport capacity in the south east, but would prefer yet more examination; a classic fudge.

Friends of The Earth are at least upfront about not wanting a new runway as it is not compatible with building a low-carbon economy.

That is fine: we are a democracy after all, but when a decision is made, let’s at least put wheels in motion in a higher gear.

I’m not expecting Mussolini to start running our train service or Qatari construction practices to become the norm to whip the UK construction industry into shape, but surely we must aspire to achieving results and progress at more than a snail’s pace if we are to stay competitive, including in the events sector.