With the third runway at Heathrow most likely to be approved soon (it was supposed to be this week, but it’s curiously been shifted back), Simon Jenkins makes some excellent points:
The prime minister has again postponed taking a decision, but that will not stop him meekly championing the carbon lobby by parroting Matthews’s nonsense to reluctant Labour MPs. He will waffle about “insisting” that the airport and airlines “take steps” to reduce carbon emissions. He will promise that a third runway will not go ahead if they “breach air pollution and noise levels”, or if Heathrow fails a punctuality test.
What will Brown do if these conditions are not met? Will he come from retirement, break up the tarmac with a drill and rebuild Harmondsworth? This is infantile politics, but it will doubtless dupe the ever-spineless Labour backbenchers.
Brown will do what his predecessors have done, which is lie. In the 1960s ministers promised “for all time” that there would be no expansion of Heathrow. It expanded. When T4 opened in 1978 there was another promise of no expansion, and a cap of 275,000 flights. The pledge was broken within a year. At the time of T5 the cap was raised to 480,000, and the prime minister and cabinet agreed that a third runway would be “totally unacceptable”.
That promise is now broken. In 2006 the transport secretary, Ruth Kelly, promised that a new runway would be a short, domestic one, with flights only over countryside to the west. She also promised carbon and pollution limits. Those promises have been broken. The government wants almost to double the number of Heathrow flights to 700,000, an astonishing increase on the present chaos, and careless of the impact on west London or its infrastructure. This is an orgy of planning abuse. No Heathrow promise is worth a bucket of spit.
Ministers lie because they know they will be out of office, or out of sight, when their pledges are broken. They know that no government can bind its successor and that Big Carbon, like Big Pharma, always gets its way. When we were young we were told that new airports could go anywhere because new planes would be so clean and quiet that nobody would mind. It was all rubbish.
The biggest lie is that a third runway is about something called “the business economy”. The BAA lobby has conned the CBI, London First and even the unions into believing this, fobbing them off with a factoid that the runway would “create 50,000 jobs”. So would rebuilding Britain’s mental health infrastructure, which would thus also be “good for business”.
I am unsentimental about much economic growth. I would flatten a rare orchid or a natterjack toad or even Harmondsworth tithe barn if the wealth thus liberated were overwhelming. With Heathrow’s third runway nothing is overwhelming except the prospective environmental damage.
This is pretty much my own argument, and of course the ‘environmental damage’ is already with us, and is already in breach of European standards:
Heathrow’s controversial third runway – due to be given the green light by ministers this week – is unlikely ever to be built because it will fall foul of new European pollution laws, environmentalists and senior government advisers believe.
The airport’s two existing runways already cause air pollution which breaches compulsory European Union air-quality standards, which Britain will have to observe by 2015. Neither anti-runway campaigners nor the Government’s Environment Agency see how these can possibly be met if the number of flights rises by 50 per cent as planned.
With the government hell bent on expanding Heathrow at any cost, Greenpeace has adopted an innovative tactic to prevent the expansion of the airport:
Greenpeace has bought a field the size of a football pitch and plans to invite protesters to dig networks of tunnels across it, similar to those built in the ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the Newbury bypass in 1996. The group also plans to divide the field into thousands of tiny plots, each with a separate owner. BAA, the airport’s owner, would be forced to negotiate with each owner, lengthening the compulsory purchase process.
Greenpeace believes that the longer the expansion is delayed, the more likely it is that the project will be cancelled.
Emma Thompson, the actress, Alastair McGowan, the comedian, and Zac Goldsmith, a Conservative adviser on the environment, were among those who signed the deeds to the site last Friday. They each contributed a small, undisclosed sum towards the purchase, but most of the £20,000 cost was met by a secret donor.
Ms Thompson said: “I don’t understand how any government remotely serious about committing to reversing climate change can even consider these ridiculous plans.We’ll stop this from happening even if we have to move in and plant vegetables.”
John Sauven, Greenpeace’s director, said: “Many thousands of people will be prepared to peacefully defend their field in person, standing in front of bulldozers and blocking construction. This site will become a focus for climate campaigners.”
I have joined up. For the sake of the environment, for the sake of the town of Sipson, and because noone’s presented a credible case for Heathrow expansion, I honestly believe you should too. And you can, here. So the government wants to buy us off with a high speed rail hub? Big deal, they should be doing that anyway. The expansion of Heathrow isn’t justified by the credit crunch – the construction will likely mostly be undertaken by foreign labour, which is all well and good, but won’t make a dent in the recession. If there really is a case for airport expansion (and I’d love someone to try to make it), I see no reason why East Midlands Airport, Manchester Airport, Birmingham International or any number of regional airports couldn’t be developed, and connected to London by a high speed rail service. This is second nature for other countries, why not Britain?