Saturday, 7 February 2009

Heathrow: Is there still hope?

I have been depressed and outraged in equal measure by the announcement that the third runway at Heathrow is to go ahead. I'd earlier been resigned to this as the most likely outcome, given all governments' unerring instinct for taking the wrong decision about anything to do with transport.

But more recently Christian Wolmar, among others, revealed that the Cabinet was deeply split on this issue, with the Millibands and Hilary Benn thought to be strongly against. Indeed, Benn went further than Cabinet ministers are normally supposed to go in openly questioning whether the third runway was compatible with Britain's air pollution commitments. (And in my view he should now resign; but people don't seem to resign on principle any more.)

This news of splits at the top level of government gave short-lived hope that Brown and Hoon might just do the sensible thing after all. But it was not to be.

The environmental and social reasons why the third runway is such a catastrophically bad idea have been gone into at length by so many others that there is no point in rehearsing the arguments again here, except to note that the village of Sipson is an extremely minor aspect of the case and not, as some affect to believe, the main point. I don't mean to say that I have no sympathy with the people who live there, only that the many arguments of principle against expanding the airport would still be just as powerful even if it could be done without destroying homes and communities.

The political arguments are a whole other thing, and were well put by Polly Toynbee in This craven airport decision hands Cameron a green halo, in which she describes the decision as "a crass error" purely from Labour's own narrow party point of view, quite aside from any other consideration. In one fell swoop the government has thrown away what green credentials it had, when, as Ms Toynbee points out, there was absolutely no reason why this decision had to be made before the election:

By 2015, when the first sod is cut on the runway, Gordon Brown will be no more than a pub quiz question. Plunging towards depression with air travel slumping, what was the rush?
"In order to be seen to be decisive", is her answer, and that just sums up the whole superficial approach that has always characterised New Labour -- all short-term deviousness and tactical calculation, no long-term strategy or overarching vision, still less anything resembling principled leadership.

All this is depressing enough, but what made me feel ill was that Ms Toynbee also pours cold water on any idea that the incoming Tory government will cancel the thing, despite their present rhetoric against it:
But how green is Cameron really? Only this week he opposed the compulsory switchover to new light bulbs. Few think that once in power the Conservatives will cancel the runway ...
I just hope she is wrong about that. Would a Tory government really take refuge behind a claim that it was now too late to stop it, having been so vocal against the idea? I have been quite surprised by how vehement Theresa Villiers has been on this subject from the Opposition front bench, even while we keep being told that a lot of decidedly non-green Tory backbenchers are secretly appalled at their party's public stance. We should note also that in London itself, Conservative activists, councillors and MPs form a significant part of the almost universal local campaign of opposition, as suggested by the event reported in this post by the Tory Troll.

There are of course those who have all along said that the runway isn't going to get built in any case, whoever is in power in the future. One of them is Vince Cable, as I have noted before. The Plane Stupid campaign also takes this line.

And finally, so does Christian Wolmar:
Either the proposal will be thrown out by the Tories or, by concerted opposition or, when serious money finally needs to be invested in it, the rationale will have disappeared. As one of my correspondents put it, no runway decision has ever survived a general election. This one will be no exception.
The interesting question is why does Labour do this? Why is it so in hock to business? My theory from talking to ministers is that they have no understanding of the private sector, only a fear that it will turn against them. So they feel compelled to give into them at any turn.
I hope these commentators are right, I really do. This is just such a hugely totemic issue for the future shape of our society.

UPDATE: The Campaign for Better Transport says in its February newsletter, "A final decision about Heathrow expansion is many years away". This is very reassuring, if true.

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