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Airports, COVID in the UK, and Interesting Facts

October 6, 2021

Peter Guest

This month, according to John Van Horn, we are supposed to be concentrating on airports. Coincidentally, I have been to London Heathrow a few times in recent weeks. It’s all a bit odd. The airport is dead; terminals still closed and travel massively down on pre-Covid days. 


Notwithstanding this, passengers returning from at the end of school holidays faced five-hour queues at the border because the government required everyone to have extensive documentation about Covid, including the infamous Passenger Locator Form which had to be checked. 


Unfortunately, the same government put most of its staff in isolation because, according to the government’s much maligned track and trace app, they had walked down the same street as someone who later tested positive. Result, busiest day of the year so far and something like three desks open. Brilliant. 


One thing that I noticed was that although the terminal was a ghost town the premium terminal-side parking was rammed. The explanation was simple: acres of closed empty long-stay parking lots round the airport. I think that pretty much all the airport’s parking need fits into the terminal-side garages right now. So, no exciting new initiatives, even the Gatwick parking robot seems to have never come out of its box. Just minimizing operating costs.


Down in the South-West in Cornwall, a single small parking slot has just been sold for £100,000 (that’s about $135,000 of your Yankee dollars), plus £400 ($540) a year in charges. This happened in the resort of St Ives. St Ives is a holiday magnet and a week’s public parking costs £47, with no guarantee of a space. At 5x2 meter the space is pretty marginal for all but the smallest cars. However, the price fades into insignificance compared to central London where a single parking slot recently sold for £350,000, or about $475,000.


It’s hard to say that we are “getting back to normal” when Covid cases are still rising at an ever-increasing rate, although I am never sure whether this is increased infection rates or better detection. Notwithstanding the evidence, the government is trying to get back to “normal” and in my local area the council has just pulled the (long term) temporary restrictions that took out curbside parking to allow wider footways for social distancing. 


Far from taking the opportunity, a la Shoup, to permanently improve the street scene for shoppers, the council has predictably rushed to be first in line to grab the driver’s shilling, before they even get into the shops. Sadly, they didn’t even take the opportunity to put in some bike parking. Tell me Mr. Councillor when did you last see a car buying something in a shop?


The prestigious Institute of Public Policy Research has been looking at the realities of the government’s “green” agenda for transport and what it might actually mean. According to the IPPR there are about 32 million cars right now, historically rising by more than twice the population growth rate this century. 


By 2050 this is expected to top 44 million. To encourage the switch to greener cars the government has put up £2.8bn split roughly equally between charger technology and car subsidies. The sum offered to meet the growth in parking need: zilch, zero, nothing, nada. And with an increase in the vehicle fleet of this size the total effect on emissions would be a net increase. Cars are parked, on average 23 hours a day, so that’s about 3-400 square km of extra real estate that will have to be turned into parking. So, more green cars equal more congestion, more pollution and more land given over to car storage. The government’s real priorities? That would be £27bn for road infrastructure versus £6bn for walking and cycling.


Our economy is really giving very mixed messages right now. I recently visited the nearest “big” town. Guildford in Surrey is a wealthy middle-class area with lots of high-end shops in the historic main street where the shop fronts still match the original medieval 14 ft field widths of the Norman Conquest. This has nothing to do with anything, but I think that it’s a really cool fact! 


I estimate about one in five shops were dark, suggesting high unemployment. And yet businesses are saying they cannot recruit staff. An acquaintance of mine who has just retired from driving heavy trucks was offered a five-fold increase in salary if he would come back. Car sales meanwhile have fallen off a cliff. In July, new car sales fell to a 65 year low of just 53,000 units, a level last seen during the Suez crisis of 1956. Post Brexit the motor manufacturers’ organization predicted a rapid increase in domestic car production. They have already cut the figures by about 10 percent, Brexit going well then?


On Brexit, Britain needs about 600,000 heavy lorry drivers to keep the economy running. Prior to Brexit there was about a 10 percent vacancy rate and now that has nearly doubled to 100,000. This is a combination of retirements, lack of training and the loss of drivers from other countries in the EU. Pre-Brexit we would have simply recruited in Eastern Europe where UK salaries and working conditions are very attractive. 


Now, the government is flatly refusing to even consider relaxing rules to allow “foreign” drivers in, lecturing the industry on the need to recruit non-existent unemployed native drivers. The effects include supermarkets with empty shelves, McDonald’s without shakes, pubs without beers and, more seriously, a shortage of medical supplies for blood tests in hospitals. Just today I was told by my doctor that my annual flu vaccination is cancelled because the suppliers cannot get trucks to distribute the shots. Brilliant!


Meanwhile, the big brains in Whitehall have been at it again on road safety. We still have too many people breaking our drink-driving limits. In 2019, there were over 2,000 accidents where someone was over the limit and that was an 8percent increase year on year. So, people are breaking the law so a) work harder to catch and penalize them or b) drop the limit and so criminalize thousands of people who are not causing a problem? 


Since there will be no increase in police resources the chances of someone breaking the old higher limit will actually go down not up. A review is under way, but unfortunately not into basic numeracy skills in the civil service. You can’t treat stupid. Slightly more sensibly, Whitehall is also looking at the possibility of introducing nighttime curfews for new young drivers, who are the group most likely to have an accident, early in their career, at night. This is done in other countries and actually seems to work.


Another interesting fact: the first purpose built multi-story car parking structure in the world was built in Denman Street in London in 1901. It was seven stories tall and was built to house 100 electric cars.



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