Comment: The people of west London will fight Heathrow expansion
By Lord True
The government has decided to let three years pass before addressing what they say is an important issue – airport capacity in south-east England. I agree with Boris Johnson. The fact the previous government – incompetent and spendthrift beyond any seen since 1832 – ducked the issue for 13 years does not make the League 2-style booting of a football over the stand for three more years any more elegant.
Thanks to the powerful industry lobby's ever-available corner tables at top London restaurants, the idea of a third runway at Heathrow, which was, rightly in the view of hundreds of thousands of Londoners, knocked on the head by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in 2010, has come staggering like Count Dracula out of the grave. Many Londoners saw this as all part of a secret plan (if so, about as transparent as Salome's seven veils) that Heathrow would be given the go-ahead after the votes of May 2015 were in the bag after Justine Greening was elbowed out from the position of transport minister, to which she had been appointed, representing the same constituency with the same honest and consistent views, a year before.
And I know Justine's replacement, Patrick McLoughlin. He is a man of the utmost integrity and independence of mind. He will be no footstool for the Heathrow PR industry. His open mind is a virtue the Heathrow lobby might care to investigate. But, for now, he has inherited a commitment (this certainly cooked up higher in the government and praised in our local paper by Vince Cable, one of the key economic ministers involved) to a so-called commission tasked with identifying options for “maintaining this country’s status as an international hub for aviation” – AKA: 'You can rule in what was previously ruled out'.
I have a simple view of politics – if you say what you mean and mean what you say people will respect you, whether the focus groups find it congenial or not. The pro-Heathrow machine never hesitates to grind its organ for useful monkeys. So why shouldn't the voice of the long-suffering people of west London be heard, before the din of ever-more aircraft drowns them and no-one can hear what we have to say. Next spring Richmond and Hillingdon councils will ensure they can vote in a referendum. After our announcement of a ballot, the Mayor of London, other councils and much of the public and press came out in support. The few criticisms we did receive arrogantly sniffed that we were NIMBYs, that we didn't want planes flying over our back gardens all night and day.
Well of course we don't, would you?
And we are already NIMBYs – with the airlines of the world ensuring that noise and pollutions are now in millions of back yards in London. On behalf of people in west London, I say we bitterly resent the charge that we do not want to do our bit for the economy. Frankly, people here have been shouldering a burden for decades.
Now that a 'short-term fix' has been ruled out by government, it is time to disentangle the issues of Heathrow and airport capacity. It is not a case of Heathrow or bust. There are many other proposals for expanding airport capacity in the UK that don't push another 22,000 flights every year right into the middle of a densely urban area affecting millions of people, where no-one in their right minds would ever have dreamt of suggesting an airport today.
There was a reason the plans were shelved last time round; survey after report after consultation showed that the costs to people's wellbeing and quality of life were unacceptable – and in any case a mini-runway at Heathrow would not do the job for anyone but BA and BAA. Both coalition parties knew that. That's why they both put down in their manifestos (promises made to be kept if politics is ever to reclaim respect) at the last election that they ruled out a third runaway, and after the election Labour shuffled shamefacedly onto that same platform.
So what has changed? Have planes suddenly become silent? Is air pollution no longer a worry? Has the risk of a disastrous crash evaporated? Have the thousands of people that would need to be forced out of their homes if a third runway was to be build suddenly vacated the premises? No. Last time I checked none of that has happened. What has changed is that the aircraft lobby, playing on fears of a continuing recession, have ground their organs for a couple of MPs flying off to lush golf courses in Florida. "Lack of capacity is killing the economy," they holler. "We can't keep up with Europe unless transit passengers buy their Hermes scarves in our shops at Heathrow," they tell us.
It's just not true. London airports still form the biggest hub in Europe, flying to more destinations, more often than any other airport or country. The idea that the United Kingdom can't keep up with countries like France and Italy that have long ago built airports away from the centre of their capitals is demonstrably false. Even then, accepting that at some point expansion will eventually be needed, why must it be at Heathrow?
So many other options present themselves, even a cursory search online will give you three or four. They all have their problems, they all have their benefits, but none would have such a huge negative impact on so many people as a third runway at Heathrow.
Expand the role regional airports and play to Britain's capacity. Add another runway at Stansted and free it from being a pocket borough for Ryanair, if you must. It currently operates way below capacity; and you could easily improve its direct rail link to the City. Or, best of all, build an entirely new airport away from the capital, providing a 21st century airport conveniently for more people. It would be sad if political jealousy stopped anyone picking up the Mayor's visionary idea of a new estuary airport. Other countries have the vision to attempt such grand projects and bring them off. Why must we always reach for the scissors and paste and dance to the lobbyists' tune? Why, if we need business growth, must we shelve action until the next Olympics come round?
There are many ways you could increase capacity and actually reduce the impact on people’s lives. But one of these is not expanding the place not fit for purpose, also known as Heathrow. Next spring we will ensure local people have their say in a referendum. Let those who plan more pain for those who already bear the most prepare to hear the cold resolve and anger it will reveal.
Lord True is leader of Richmond council and a Conservative peer.
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