Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Flights of folly

GORDON BROWN would be making a big mistake later this month if he gives the green light to expansion at Heathrow Airport. The economic case for expansion has not been made. The impact on local residents would be severe. The contrast with the recent Climate Change Act, committing the country to an 80 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, would be stark. And, politically, it could cost Labour the next general election.

It is estimated that the unpopularity of the expansion proposals in west London and Berkshire could lose Labour up to a dozen seats. In a close contest, that might mean the party was out of power.

That is one of the main reasons why more than 50 Labour MPs signed an Early Day Motion in November last year calling on the Government to think again. And this was followed last month by another EDM, signed by more than 40 Labour MPs, calling for a vote in Parliament on the expansion plans.

What has focused Labour minds is the position of the Conservatives. They have said that, if elected, they would scrap all the expansion plans. In the words of one Tory councillor, that puts “pure blue water” between them and Labour on the issue. With the Liberal Democrats also opposed to expansion at Heathrow, Labour faces the prospect of going into the next general election as the only party supporting the further growth of the airport.

The scale of the proposed expansion is very large indeed. BAA, the airport’s owner, would like to build a third runway and a sixth terminal. That would increase flight numbers from 476,000 (as they were in 2007) to more than 700,000 flights a year. It would be like bolting an airport the size of Gatwick onto the existing Heathrow. At least 700 properties would have to be demolished.

But there are also significant proposals to increase the number of flights using the current two runways by scrapping what is known as runway alternation. That is the practice whereby planes landing at Heathrow switch runways at three o’clock each afternoon to allow people in the boroughs closest to the airport a half-day’s break from the noise. It is the prospect of losing this respite which is causing particular fury in many parts of west London.

The proposed expansion has created opposition on a scale never before seen at Heathrow and in the surrounding areas. The strength of feeling is no longer confined to local residents and a handful of councils. The opponents of Heathrow expansion include just about every MP in the area, more than 20 local authorities across London and the home counties, six leading trade unions (Unison, the TSSA, ASLEF, RMT, PCS and Connect), major NGOs such as Greenpeace, the Campaign for Better Transport, the World Development Movement and the National Trust, as well as thousands of environmentalists, including the direct action network Plane Stupid.

This loose coalition encompasses all the concerns of its supporters: noise, air pollution, the destruction of communities and climate change. It is this last which has brought in a new generation of campaigners. Aviation is the fastest growing contributor to carbon dioxide emissions in Britain. At its present rate of growth, it threatens to swamp all the emissions savings made from other industries. For good reason, the battle to stop expansion at Heathrow has been called “the iconic fight against climate change in the UK”.

The World Development Movement has calculated that a third runway alone would be responsible for as many carbon dioxide emissions in one year as the entire economy of Kenya. This is deeply inequitable. It highlights just how much aviation is a rich person’s game played at the expense of the poorest in the developing world: the people who would be hit first – and most acutely – by climate change and who are the least likely of any on Earth to fly. This puts the so-called right of “hard-working British families” to fly to Prague for the weekend into some perspective.

However, it is the campaigners’ unexpected challenge over the economic need for Heathrow expansion which has hit the Government hardest. It had been assumed that the debate would focus on the economic benefits of expansion versus the environmental downsides it would bring. But this changed when the opponents of expansion commissioned their own economic study.

The CE Delft Study, undertaken by Dutch economic consultants and so far the only truly independent study produced, questions the economic justification for expanding Heathrow. It challenges the Government’s arguments that, if Heathrow does not expand, London will lose out to cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, which have large and expanding airports. CE Delft found this would not be the case, because the popularity of London as a business centre is not dependent on the growth of Heathrow. Other factors are more important in attracting business to the capital. The CE Delft Study has influenced both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.

The Government was put even more on the back foot when the Tories committed themselves to a new high-speed rail link. The evidence suggests this might be the way forward. At least a fifth of all flights currently using Heathrow are to destinations where a fast, affordable rail service could provide a viable alternative.

The opposition parties are also highlighting the potential of video-conferencing. According to a recent report by the World Wildlife Fund, of the top FTSE 350 companies, 89 per cent expect they will want to fly less over the next 10 years and make more use of video-conferencing in the future, because this would make good business sense.

And the Government is being challenged from the left as well. The RMT, one of several trade unions opposed to Heathrow expansion, has published a report highlighting the rail alternatives. Respect, the Left List, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Greens have all come out in opposition to expansion.

The unions and the parties of the left argue that, instead of backing expansion of such an unsustainable industry, the Government should be providing incentives for investment in less carbon-intensive industries which would allow a “just transition” of employment from less sustainable to more sustainable forms of production

The Government is looking increasingly isolated. Parties to the left and right of Labour have seized the agenda and they have a positive story to tell. Theirs is the narrative which rings true in an age when climate change is threatening, peak oil is a reality and the recession is deepening. So the question is: has the Prime Minister got the courage and flexibility to face up to the new reality and take the hard decision to scrap all expansion plans for Heathrow?