Simon Jenkins: London’s airports and a string of broken promises
What value a politician’s promise? As London airport policy returns to centre stage, this issue is centre stage. Nothing in London politics has been more cynical than the “historic pledges” given by governments to residents around Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick airports. Time after time local people have been told that if only they would capitulate and accept giant jets flying over their homes, “There will never be any question of further expansion in the future.” The congestion and noise pollution associated with major airports in residential areas are now regarded, in most countries, as unacceptable. The aviation industry once promised to invent engines so quiet that airport noise would be a thing of the past. In London, millions must have been devoted to lobbying successive governments to break the promises of no expansion from their predecessors.
27 March 2012 (Evening Standard)
[See also The history of BAA’s broken promises on Heathrow Friends of the Earth briefing (5 pages, pdf). January 2009. ]
What value a politician’s promise? As London airport policy returns to centre stage, it is Don Giovanni time again. Whatever he promised at the time, he may have meant at the time. But then he wanted something.
Nothing in London politics has been more cynical than the “historic pledges” given by governments to residents around Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick airports. If only they would capitulate and accept giant jets flying over their homes, “There will never be any question of further expansion in the future.”
The congestion and noise pollution associated with major airports in residential areas are now regarded, in most countries, as unacceptable. It is on a par with aluminium smelters, open sewers or squatter camps in parks. We may not make much progress down the road to a tolerable environment but that far we have got.
The aviation industry once promised to invent engines so quiet that airport noise would be a thing of the past. Planes would be able to take off and land all night. The development of quiet jets stopped when the industry found it cheaper to lobby governments to break promises — or at least to get taxpayers to pay for airports in less-inhabited areas. In London, millions must have been devoted to lobbying successive governments to break the promises of no expansion from their predecessors. The promises at Gatwick and Stansted have so far held. At Heathrow, the pass was sold when a pledge against expansion was broken with the fourth and fifth terminals.
Now the lobbies scent victory on another breach at Heathrow. As recently as 2010, David Cameron not only swore that there would be no new runway but committed himself to the expensive and unnecessary HS2 train as an alternative sop to the construction lobby. Just two years later we are now told that an “options paper” on London runway capacity has been commissioned.
The chancellor, George Osborne, as good as indicated last week that the caveat “all options except a third runway at Heathrow” no longer applied. The spin is that he and Cameron are preparing to break their word. West Londoners should feel very afraid.
My own preference for considering an estuary airport one day is based on a belief that if one government promises something binding on future governments, that promise should be kept. Otherwise no statement of government will ever be believed. Cameron and Osborne parrot Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in claiming that “growth and jobs” justify all they do. Even the Olympics is said to be about growth and jobs. The phrase has become, like national security, a catch-all for ministerial omnipotence.
Governments need to worry about maintaining infrastructure but that does not mean any grand project is worthwhile just because it has a rich lobby and a plausible consultant behind it. The three projects that are, or will soon be, crashing their way across London, the Stratford Olympics, HS2 and Crossrail, were all justified with airy references to growth and jobs. None makes economic sense, while their collective cost, in the tens of billions of pounds, would have transformed London’s economic welfare in a dozen other ways.
In the Sixties, it was assumed that more urban motorways were vital for London’s prosperity. Backed by well-financed lobbying from the construction industry they were planned everywhere, from the Strand and Oxford Street to a “motorway box” around inner London. Opposing them was to be “against growth and jobs” and out of order. No one says that today. It is rightly assumed that demand for road space must be curbed, by congestion or pricing, to meet capacity.
Today the lobbies have given up on urban roads and are after the vast sums government will sink into rail and air capacity. This is despite the demand for airports being overwhelmingly for personal and leisure travel. Again the cry is growth and jobs. Again it is assumed that the state should pay for capacity to meet any predicted demand.
What is in the interest of British Airways and BAA is not the same as what is in the interest of the nation. We have seen this week the extent to which paid lobbying can seek influence on ministerial policy. A cabinet bereft of industrial and commercial experience is susceptible to brazen log-rolling, especially when backed by lush donations to party funds. Those who have never strayed from the political barnyard start quaking when smart-suited men muscle up to them at parties, waving cheques and shouting “Get serious” on their pet interest. Britain is not very corrupt but it is corrupt enough for money to induce ministers to make bad decisions.
Government should disentangle special interest from public interest. Until the aviation industry produces cleaner and quieter jets, there must be alternative ways of meeting future demand for air travel in Britain, and that includes constraint by price. It is important for a nation to keep abreast of world competition but not important at any cost in expenditure and pollution — otherwise all pollution controls would be abandoned forthwith.
If substantial new capacity really is going to be needed in the London area in decades to come, it is hard to avoid the expensive estuary option. Cost and inconvenience are the price that should be imposed on travellers who expect taxpayers to subsidise their hyper-mobility and suffer their noise. Cost and inconvenience are not reason enough for politicians to break their promises.
See also The history of BAA’s broken promises on Heathrow Friends of the Earth briefing (5 pages, pdf). January 2009.
Heathrow terminal 5 and runway 3
A chronology of worthless promises:
Media Briefing January 2009
This briefing offers a chronological summary of broken promises by BAA over the expansion of Heathrow airport 1993 – 2008