Chancellor George Osborne in airport meetings with backers
It has emerged, through FoI, that Chancellor George Osborne and his officials held a string of private meetings with the backers of plans for a new airport in Kent, including the London Mayor Boris Johnson. There were also regular contacts with Foster and Partners and Halcrow. The previously undisclosed contacts stretched over a 4-month period between May and August last year. The government has refused to say why the meetings were held and who asked for them, saying that it is not in the public interest to do so. The meetings reinforce speculation that the Treasury and the Chancellor have been instrumental in pushing the government towards backing the highly contentious idea of a new hub airport after David Cameron had, a year earlier, publicly vetoed the prospect.
February 08 2012 (Kent online)
by political editor Paul Francis
Lord Foster’s plans for a hub airport, unveiled last year
Chancellor George Osborne and his officials held a string of private meetings with the backers of plans for a new airport in Kent, including the London Mayor Boris Johnson, it has emerged.
The previously undisclosed contacts stretched over a four-month period between May and August last year, according to details obtained by the (Kent Messenger) KM Group under the Freedom of Information Act.
The government has refused to say why the meetings were held and who asked for them, saying that it is not in the public interest to do so.
It did reveal that Mr Osborne held a face-to-face meeting with Boris Johnson in July last year to discuss his plans for an island airport – dubbed Boris Island.
But the Treasury has refused to say exactly what was discussed at the meeting because it involved the formulation of government policy.
The meeting will reinforce speculation that the Treasury and the Chancellor have been instrumental in pushing the government towards backing the highly contentious idea of a new hub airport after David Cameron had, a year earlier, publicly vetoed the prospect.
Those suspicions are underlined by the disclosure that Treasury officials also had regular contacts with Foster and Partners and Halcrow, the backers of an alternative Thames Estuary airport scheme.
Four meetings took place between May and August last year, with Treasury officials being hosted for one of those meetings at the London headquarters of Foster and Partners.
In November, Lord Foster unveiled his company’s vision for a new £50bn international hub airport in Kent, and last month the government announced it was consulting on the idea as part of a review of aviation capacity.
But it seems the Treasury was actively involved in listening to the case for an airport several months before. The first meeting officials had with representatives of Fosters and Partners was held in May, followed by a second just a month later.
After the first meeting, Foster and Partners sent an email which said: “We found the conversation we had both stimulating and highly reassuring as you both made points we passionately believe in.”
This meeting was followed by two more in July and August, this time involving both Foster and Partners and Halcrow, infrastructure consultants working on the scheme.
The government has refused to release any information about what was discussed at any of these meetings.
In its response to our FOI request, the Treasury confirmed “the issue of an Estuary airport was covered to an extent” but said there were “weighty arguments” for withholding the information.
The response said: “There is a strong public interest in effective policy development.
“If ministers and officials were not able to conduct a free and frank discussion it would result in in people providing less candid opinions and therefore impact on the quality of policy development.
“We do not think this would be in the public interest, particularly as this is currently a very live issue.”
by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul FrancisFriday, February 10 2012
There has long been a suspicion the government’s U-turn that led to its decision to consult on the idea of a Thames Estuary airport was, in part, driven by the Treasury and the Chancellor. It was said they had been won round by the argument that such a project would deliver investment and jobs – along with regeneration – at a critical time.
But how was the Treasury won round? A clue perhaps lies in the meetings George Osborne and his officials had with the backers of the idea that were disclosed to us under the Freedom of Information Act.
Although we aren’t being told what was on the table at these meetings as it is not deemed to be in the public interest.
What we do glean from the details provided is that there seemed to be a sympathetic ear at the Treasury, where officials met representatives of Foster and Partners and the consultants Halcrow no less than four times to chew over the idea.
The rather gushing email sent by an unnamed representative of Foster following one meeting talks revealingly of how stimulating and reassuring the meeting was given that both sides believed passionately in the same points.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with any proponent of any scheme seeking contacts with politicians and their officials. You wouldn’t expect anything less where a project as huge as this was concerned. Access is critical to getting the message across.
But if the government wants to be seen to be playing a straight bat over what is undeniably a massively contentious issue, it will have to better than come up with the fig leaf of an excuse that it has to withhold information about what exactly was discussed at these meetings.
It is, frankly, an insult to say on that policy discussion needs to take place behind closed doors so opinions can be expressed candidly. In its response, the Treasury says it acknowledges that there is a public interest in what is a ‘live’ issue – which in its way makes the case for full transparency and openness – not the case for running away and hiding.
It is interesting to speculate on whether, had the Treasury been approached by, say, the leader of Medway council, for such a meeting, Mr Osborne or his officials would have proved quite as accommodating.
Either way, it is vital that the government’s consultation starts from a position of neutrality.
There are arguments on both sides to be had but public confidence in the integrity of that consultation won’t be enhanced if there is any suspicion that one side is getting greater opportunities to promote their views above the other.