Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Re-nationalise BAA, don't break it up
The Competition Commission has called for BAA, the Spanish company that owns several of Britain's leading airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick, to be broken up. But the answer to Britain's airport woes is not allowing yet more profit-hungry plcs to own and operate our airports, but simply to re-nationalise BAA. Here is my First Post article from last summer on why renationalisation makes sense.
Across the political spectrum there is widespread agreement that Britain's airports, with their long queues, lack of seats and tacky, shopping mall atmosphere, are a national disgrace. But the solution is not to break up BAA's monopoly and introduce 'more competition' as some have suggested. The answer is to simply take BAA back into public ownership.
Sir Terence Conran, who designed Terminal One at Heathrow and the North Terminal in the 1960s, has contrasted the brief he received from the owners of the airports back then - the British state - with the instructions Lord (Richard) Rogers, the architect of Terminal 5, got from BAA.
Conran was told to put in as many seats as possible, with the priority being to make passengers 'relax and feel at ease'. At Terminal One there were only three shops.
The privatised BAA told Rogers to put in as few seats as possible: there will be only 700 seats for a terminal handling an average of 80,000 passengers a day when it opens in March 2008. BAA wants people to pay to sit down at the terminal's expensive cafes and restaurants - not sit down for free, eating their own sandwiches.
The approach perfectly illustrates the difference in ethos between a publicly-owned company, for whom profit is not the be all and end all, and a privatised one.
We can't blame BAA for treating every square foot at Heathrow as a profit centre: it's a private company which wants to maximise returns for its shareholders. But we can blame the politicians foolish enough to sell off BAA in the first place. Allowing other profit-hungry plcs to compete to run our airports would only mean more of the same.
If we really want Heathrow and our other airports to be comfortable and reasonably easy to negotiate, we need to change the whole philosophy under which they operate. And that means returning them to their most appropriate owners: the British public.