I confess I’ve never been good with numbers. When my husband shows me the farm accounts, I get a kind of decimal cataract. My ability to fake comprehension of figures rivals Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.
This cloud of numerical unknowing makes me quite sympathetic with the Government. When Ministers say that they expect 15,000 Poles to come here when Poland enters the EU, and then 600,000 arrive, I understand their surprise. When the cost of the Olympics leaps in four months from £4 billion to £20 billion, I can sympathise with their faulty accounting. Still, every now and then, I hear figures that penetrate the fog. It happened this morning when I heard on the Today programme that the Government and British Airports Authority (BAA), the owner of Stansted, want to triple the number of flights leaving Stansted by 2015 and increase the number of passengers to 35 million a year.
To numerate innocents like myself, 35 million sounds like a lot. I had to check the papers to be sure, but there it was: 35 million passengers a year. The Government and BAA argue that expansion of the aviation industry is vital to the economy. Numbers may be beyond my grasp, but I have often been praised for my common sense. So it seems obvious to me that if building a second runway at Stansted is crucial to the economic survival of the South-East, it would be foolish to stop there. The time has come for England itself to become an airport.
The advantages are huge: by paving over all that unnecessary countryside, we could create a model of economic sustainability that would be the envy of the world. Oh, the jobs we would create! China and India would hang their heads as England emerges as an economic colossus, pound notes graced with the motto In BAA speramus.
Don’t think I’m unaware of the downside. It seems that the leader of the Inuits in Alaska is coming over here to plead against the expansion of Stansted. He will speak about the link between Britain’s cheap flights and the effects of climate change on his people. It’s not just polar bears who are drowning: the people who have hunted on the ice for 5,000 years are being killed by falling through the thinning ice field as they pursue their prey. I admit that’s tough, but perhaps it’s time for the Inuit to get real. When all their houses fall into the sea, they can come to the land known as the United Airport Kingdom and find work in the casinos, oyster bars and Accessorise shops. In this new poetic landscape, they will forget the petty concerns of noise and pollution. With BAA in charge, human values (vague, unrealistic, uneconomic) will melt away as surely as the Arctic ice floes.
Mind you, BAA may already have plans for the United Airport Kingdom. It claims that congestion at Heathrow and Gatwick costs the economy £1.7 billion a year, whereas increasing capacity will boost it by £13 billion. That sounds like the algebraic formula for more than one runway. In fact, there’s no alternative to turning the country into an airport. It would require a Government that honestly believes that there is a connection between airport expansion and global warming. A Government that doesn’t worship at the altar of Economic Growth, and its twin, the Myth of Jobs. The Government we’ve got ‘plans to cater for 460 million passengers at UK airports by 2020’. I may not shine at pure maths, but I can recognise a civilisation floating on thin ice.