Tuesday, 27 November 2007

London 3 (St Pancras, Cross-Rail, Heathrow) West Midlands 0.

I have to admit, and all of my environmentalist friends with cringe when I say it but I do like to travel, and that means today a fair bit of flying. Not a huge amount, I travel by train when I can but this year I have flown about six times including two Atlantic crossings. Some years ago after a series of terrible journeys I made a pledge that whenever I went I would avoid going through Heathrow Airport at all costs.

Quite frankly it is a dump. What’s more it is a dump that may have access to all parts of the world from its runways, but on many occasions, which just happen to be the times you want to get there it does not have access to England.

What on earth the Government can be thinking of in trying to shoe-horn another runway between the M3, the M4 and the M25 is beyond me. One can only conclude that the Government have been captured by the Airport operator BAA. Although BAA seems to be in the static rather than the travel business, as they seem more interested in keeping travellers in the Airport as long as possible as captive consumers in their shopping malls, rather than in getting them quickly and safely into the air.

I remember on one trip I was forced to stay overnight at the airport to catch an early morning flight because it was impossible to guarantee that I could make the check in time in the morning rush hour. It still took me over an hour, despite the fact I could see the aeroplane to get from the hotel to the check in desk.

So my question is, even if you mange to demolish Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace to get the new runway down, how will the passengers disembark onto the surrounding infrastructure? We have of course been promised cross-rail but how long is that going to take to tunnel east-west under London?

As a railway fan I have greatly enjoyed the programmes on BBC about the redevelopment of St Pancras Station. What a wonderful inspiring building, but you don’t get much these days for £800 million pounds; the most glorious part of the architecture was built for us by our Victoria forefathers.

Nonetheless look what that investment has done for the image of London and the image of rail travel. It has given even that city of landmarks a new one and made travelling by rail almost sexy.

So where does that leave us in the West Midlands. Travellers from the region will be still be spending millions of pounds a year to get to Heathrow because our own Airport needs a longer runway for those inter-continental flights. There is potential capacity to be used at Birmingham Airport and at East Midlands Airport if the Government stops and thinks for a moment.

Add in some improved rail links to these airports which in the case of Birmingham are already quite good and you have relatively painless expansion. Look if a revitalised St Pancras can make the area around Kings Cross sexy just think what a strikingly designed new New Street could do for Birmingham.

If we include in this the improved cross country rail connections that a new station could deliver and we are looking at a genuinely integrated transport strategy. Isn’t that what they have been telling us for years is the Holy Grail of transport thinking?

I can imagine at some point in the future when the airport is expanded all those planes land at Heathrow and all those people pile out into the terminal and realise there is no space to go anywhere and go straight back home. Like our Government they will never know that a place called England exists. Maybe then a future government will realise the missed opportunity they where presented with in 2007.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

The Politics of Migration: Does the Government know if we are coming or going?

The dust appears to have settled on the Hastilow affair so maybe we can begin to have a grown up debate about migration. Not since the debate on unemployment in the 1980’s have government statistics been so mistrusted.

The most recent official government estimates, crudely based on surveys of people arriving and leaving at our airports, show approximately 1,500 migrants arrived to live in the UK every day during 2005.

Now just admitting that can cause some political apoplexy, a definite case of the meaning of things lying not in the things themselves, but in our attitudes to them.

Our Government, naturally want it both ways; they want the benefits of large scale migration without acknowledging any costs or implications. Having failed miserably to increase UK productivity - output per worker, the way left to increase national output is to increase the labour force. For them the arrival of young workers into Britain is a testament to our “flexible” deregulated labour market as migrants go on to add vastly to GDP.

To employers too, relatively undemanding workers are also a good thing, especially if they require low levels of training and can be hired and fired as business demands require.

For the macro economy then this influx of new workers is an unequivocal good thing. I must admit as someone who has no children but who quite likes the idea of having a pension I too welcome these hard working young migrants.

That deregulation is of course less of a good thing when you find out that thousands of illegal migrants are employed by private security services.

When you look at the impact on the micro, the individual, level it begins to look less rosy. Large scale migration puts pressure on all public services, policing, hospitals, and schools but especially on scarce housing resources.

If you are stuck in a low paid job have poor skills and have now to compete with a young graduate, who probably speaks better English than you do, but who works for very low wages, is not an experience to make you feel welcoming.

It is not just at the bottom end of the labour market that competition for jobs with migrant workers is having an impact. England and Liverpool star Steven Gerrard has called for quotas in the Premiership to protect the national team.

And large scale migration is not the only challenge, globalisation, and huge technological change, can for many people be very disorientating. It is easy for the cosmopolitan elite to forget that most of Britain has been demographically stable for a long time; millions do not travel abroad, have no interest in or access to the internet, and do not see why they need to change.

It is understandable therefore that politicians will seek to articulate the concerns of many of these people. After all why else would the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, talk about “British jobs, for British workers” in his party conference speech?

But the data masks a huge amount of coming and going. Thousands of people are also leaving the country. Net around a 1000 people per day are leaving. Half of those leaving are British citizens heading for Australia, Spain and France to build what they see as better lives for themselves.

My guess is that many of those Eastern Europeans who have come to Britain may well too soon begin to return home as many are now returning to Ireland and India. So what is really interesting about these patterns of migration is that there is a huge churn in the numbers. At this point slightly more of those coming to Britain are staying than those leaving but it would be foolish to make tough proposals on immigration until we have better data and a better understanding of just what is going on.

Our weakness as a nation and what made Nigel Hastlows position so very difficult is that we cannot stop this roundabout and get off. The position we are in is that we need migrant workers to sustain the economy and large parts of our public services.

There is nothing to be proud of in having the NHS staffed by Doctors and Nurses recruited from the health services of developing countries. Nor is their anything to be proud of in having so few English players turning out for our premiership football teams.

But that is where we are. If we are to compete successfully in this global labour market for skills and talent then we need a fundamental long term shift in both the attitudes and the skills of our citizens.

For me this will have been achieved when a new Arsene Wenger selects eleven Englishmen to turn out for Arsenal in the Champions league. Now that may well be a long time in the future and will certainly require a process of better education, training, and skills acquisition but most importantly in motivation and attitude. Crude quotas and knee jerk reactions however will not make the process of facing up to our weaknesses and addressing them any easier.