Whitehall met aviation chiefs over Heathrow third runway

27.3.2009   (Guardian)

by Patrick Wintour and Dan Milmo 

Department for Transport civil servants repeatedly met aviation industry chiefs
in advance of the decision to back a third runway at Heathrow, even though they
told environmental groups that there was a blanket ban on meetings with any external

The disclosure comes in documents the civil service was directed to release to Greenpeace by the information commissioner after
nearly nine months of stonewalling by civil servants.

The documents, in the form of a risk register produced by the DfT last year,
also disclose that the communications directorate at the department saw it as its job to “monitor protest groups continuously and brief staff and police accordingly”.

The risk register is a document listing everything that could go wrong with the
project, the likelihood of something going wrong and how much of a problem such
an event would be.

Ministers regarded losing the economic and environmental arguments as “high”
impact and “medium” likelihood, combining to give a “high” exposure to risk for
the government.   The threat of disruption was seen as one of the highest risk threats to the third

The documents also disclose that at one point the department thought it would
only be able to meet the noise reduction demands by introducing a congestion charge
for the area.

Civil servants also advised that they continue high-level and frequent engagement
with industry stakeholders, including at ministerial level, as necessary to keep
abreast of developments and strategies.

At the same time an environmental organisation was being emailed by transport
department civil servants:   “In advance of the meeting I would like to make clear
that discussion of Heathrow expansion will not be possible. This is for reasons
of propriety as the consultation has now closed and ministers are considering
the submissions that have been made.

“This condition applies to all meetings that the secretary of state is holding
with external groups. Wider issues around aviation and the environment may, of
course, be discussed with the ministers.”

The document also shows that civil servants thought it right to contact the Competition
Commission so it did not create “uncertainty over BAA capacity/drive to take forward
LHR expansion”.

Meanwhile, the government has indicated that BAA cannot lodge a planning application
for a third runway before the next general election – an admission that ensures
a Conservative government could block a new landing strip at the airport.

According to a presentation by the DfT, seen by the Guardian, BAA is not expected to seek planning permission for a third runway until 2012.

The last possible date for a general election is 3 June 2010.   Executives at
the airport group have conceded that it will be impossible to compile the plans
and data necessary by that date.


see also
Greenpeace blog
about the Risk Register.

Risk register

Given that Heathrow’s third runway is by many (fairly reasonable) standards a
hugely unpopular and environmentally damaging project which would flatten a community,
significantly contribute to rising UK carbon emissions, and be campaigned against
those bloody NGOs, it’s fair to say that it must have been a bit of a headache for the person
project managing the task of getting it approved.

If you’re a project management type, a risk register (and I had no idea about
this before last week), is a document where you have to list everything that could
go wrong with the project, how likely it is to happen and how much of a problem
it would be. You also have to say what you’re going to do about it.

For Heathrow, drawing up such a document must have been a bit of a nightmare.
If you got your hands on the risk register written by the civil servant tasked
with getting approval for a third runway at Heathrow, it would probably contain
some interesting stuff. So we did.
You can download it and have a read for yourselves, but here’s some highlights.


The government were/are very worried about losing the economic and environmental
arguments over Heathrow

RIsk register

The Heathrow risk register is a list of damaging scenarios. First up: ‘Govt loses
the economic and CO2 arguments on LHR’. The coloured boxes from left to right
indicate this is listed as ‘high’ impact and ‘medium’ likelihood, combining to
give a ‘high’ exposure to risk for the government.

You’d think that the government would be pretty worried about this, and that
they might do something about it. But under ‘Measures in place to manage [risk]’
it just says ‘Mitigating actions to be identified over the summer’. The obvious
conclusion is that at the end of July last year (when the assessment dates from)
the government had no idea how to strengthen the economic or environmental arguments
for the runway convincingly – there was nothing they could do to prevent a ‘high’
exposure to the risk of failing to convince, either economically or environmentally.

Which probably explains the eventual weakness of the arguments presented for
economic benefits of the third runway, as well as the embarrassingly weak attempt by Geoff Hoon to spin the third
runway as ‘green’ by banging on about vaguely defined ‘green planes’ or ‘green
landing slots’, or trying to argue that oversight from the Environment Agency
– (whose chairman Chris Smith
quickly stated that the decision to build the runway was the wrong one) and from the Civil Aviation Authority – (who seemed unaware and they were about
to be thrust into the role, and
less than enthusiastic about it.) would in any way make the runway less of an environmental liability
and an economic white elephant.


Direct action is a problem for the government and BAA

Risk register

One thing the risk register does show is just how touchy the civil servants are
about direct action – it’s one of the key things they list as a potential problem,
both because it could delay progress, and because it causes acute embarrassment.
From “Direct action by opponents of Heathrow expansion leads to short term disruption
at Heathrow and negative publicity” to “Strength of opposition to expansion at
Heathrow led to direct action during consultation period,” it’s clear that protests
around the issue, backed by the sheer scale of the opposition they face, has been
a real concern.


Local opposition could ‘undermine’ consultation

RIsk register

The government had to undertake a public consultation before plans for the runway
could be approved. But they already knew it was a wildly unpopular scheme.

Now, the risk register obviously isn’t going to admit that if the consultation
goes against the runway they’ll spin the results, but one rather delicately worded
risk is “Strength of opposition from residents under flight path in relation to
noise and pollution undermines consultation.” – Which is listed as ‘high’ impact
and ‘high’ likelihood.

It’s interesting to note that according to the risk register they didn’t think
a planned DfT/BAA programme of trying to wow the locals into submissions with
events, meetings and ‘stakeholder engagement’ sessions would reduce the risk at
all. In other words, they had no confidence in their ability to change people’s
minds leading up to the consultation – presumably again because their arguments
were weak.

And it’s a rather strange way to put it – ‘undermine’. To my (admittedly rather
naïve) mind the point of a consultation is to find out what people think, not
to rubber stamp something that’s already been decided. Of course, at the time
we were saying that the consultation was a sham – (chunks were written by BAA, it was full of leading questions, etc, etc.)
The risk registers really only support the diagnosis that rigging the consultation
was a desperate effort to ‘manage the risk’ of the consultation being ‘undermined’
by actually being accurate.

In the end, of course, despite the best efforts of the government and BAA, the
consultation came back with only 11 per cent of local residents supporting a third
runway (and a significant chunk of those worked for BAA).

So they just ignored it anyway.


And finally…

Risk register

Some light relief. Maybe every risk register now has to include the possibility
of leaving some massive dataset of taxpayer’s details in the back of a taxi, but
it’s not particularly reassuring to see “Loss of Heathrow consultation response
database” in there as a realistic risk. Although it has got a ‘low’ likelihood.

But if they were including this kind of stuff, why not other ‘far out’ scenarios
– ‘Geoff Hoon has a road to Damascus conversion and joins Greenpeace’ for example,
or ‘
Peter Mandelson knocks himself unconscious in critical cabinet meeting‘.

Well, maybe in the next FOI request… (Download the Heathrow risk registers here.)