Comment: Dithering Britain will leave the runway debate grounded

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Time to get on with the third runway debate
Time to get on with the third runway debate

Look at us - we're at it again. Just a few weeks ago the Olympics opening ceremony summed up Britain's history by portraying our green and pleasant land being paved over with industrialised concrete. Now the tensions it embodied have arrived in parliament.

The coalition reshuffle has reignited the Heathrow third runway debate. Justine Greening's departure prompted almost everyone - led by Boris Johnson - to conclude that the Tories are going to "ditch" their promises and expand Britain's largest airport. The storm has been brewing all year. By its end it will have well and truly broken over Westminster.

Danny Boyle's conception of the UK's past shows just how deeply the agonies of the aviation strategy dilemma are scarred into the UK's collective psyche. We have spent centuries balancing the urge to protect our green heritage with boosting the economy. The Olympics opening ceremony showed, in fairly unsubtle terms, which way the pendulum ended up sticking. Crisp bank notes trump wilted leaves any day. We built an empire on the principle. Now we are going to build another runway.

That an extra strip of concrete will appear shortly somewhere in the south-east of England seems a foregone conclusion in the minds of MPs I've spoken to. Ironically, even those who are calling for a third runway at Heathrow expect their demands will instead lead to a more pragmatic solution: the transformation of either Gatwick or Stansted into a major hub, boosted by improved rail links, sharing the load with Heathrow. This will generate huge opposition - the regions deserve a say in the debate as they call for the burden (and profits) to spread more nationwide - but there's no doubt that fears Britain is falling behind other European nations will prompt its construction somewhere or other.


When you accept that, you also have to accept its knock-on effects. The policymakers will happily write off the consequences of their actions as they stay focused on the overarching goal of boosting long-term economic growth. Others will not be so willing to lie back and take what is coming to them.

Britain is peculiarly unsuited to dealing with quandaries of this kind. We are a relatively small, crowded island, with a passionate history of protecting our rights and liberties. This will be reflected in the debate on aviation. Wherever the runway ends up appearing it will be fought, bitterly, by local campaigners. The 'not in my back yard' impulse is a fundamental characteristic of Britishness, even if Boyle and co chose not to advertise it to the world. 'Nimby': it's a derogatory word, but the principle that an Englishman's home is his castle is just as important a part of who we are as the urge for cash.

Once again, then, an age-old battle is about to be repeated. Yet this time round there's an unusual dynamic in play. The Conservatives, whose logo is an oak tree, are unlikely to change it for a control tower or a pound sign. Yet they are likely to find themselves split on the issue, just as Labour and the Liberal Democrats are too. This makes the end result rather uncertain. Even if the opposition decides to back the government's approach in a bid to depoliticise the issue on the frontbenches, there is always a danger of backbench revolt. As the coalition government weakens, the chances of a Commons vote making its mind up become increasingly unlikely.

In 2010 the British people chose to return a parliament without a clear mandate for any party. One consequence of that verdict on our political system will be an inability of ministers to make a real difference on the Heathrow third runway question. Unlike in the past, when the pragmatic realities of the economy have always won through in the end, 21st century Britain is likely to approach the problem with a kind of indecision and dithering alien to its history. How many of those who clapped and cheered the Olympic opening ceremony will do everything they can to oppose a new runway in their back yard?

Losers are inevitable when it comes to sorting out our transport infrastructure. Whatever the state of our frayed and divided political classes, we've just got to get on with it.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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