FoI documents now prove Whitehall hid evidence on Heathrow expansion

29.11.2009   (Sunday Times)

by Marie Woolf

THE government colluded with the airports operator BAA to skew evidence in favour
of expanding Heathrow and play down facts that could help opponents, secret documents

The government was so concerned about the content of internal emails and memos
about Heathrow expansion that it spent 18 months trying to prevent them being
revealed. They were obtained only after Justine Greening, Tory MP for Putney,
complained to the freedom of information watchdog.

Email exchanges and memos between BAA and government officials — seen by The
Sunday Times — show how they relied on research that they knew would not stand
up to scrutiny.

They also show that officials discussed taking out references to technical notes
containing crucial evidence, so that opponents of expansion would not know they

A memo from the senior strategy manager on Heathrow at BAA explicitly asks for
a reference to BAA technical notes to be removed. It then adds: "He has avoided
all references to the TNs [technical notes] in the surface access report and suggests,
which I would agree with, that if [name redacted] can change his reference it
could minimise the opportunity for a request for access to any or all of the TNs."

During the consultation on the expansion plans, the Department for Transport
(DfT) published material that combined its data on air quality with data supplied
by BAA.

One email exchange recorded that "some consultees may … claim collusion" between
the Department for Transport and BAA, the airports operator.

The papers also suggest that BAA and not the government was in the driving seat
of the public consultation. Some of the internal emails show officials at the
DfT asking BAA to include "drafting points" in documents prepared for the public

One memo from a BAA official expresses annoyance at the government’s last-minute
changes. "How critical are they, as there seem to be a lot at this late stage?"
he wrote.

The memos show the government knew it was presenting flawed evidence to bolster
its case for expanding Heathrow.

One memo written in November 2007 claimed that "90% of businesses in the southeast"
rated it as either "vital" or "very important" to their business. Yet officials
also noted that the "conclusion [is] based on a very low sample size" and that
it should be "used with caution".

Yet the data was presented by the government in public documents to show that
failure to expand Heathrow could badly damage the economy. No mention was made
of the fact that only 2.6% of the 6,000 businesses to which questionnaires had
been sent had responded.

Another memo written in November 2007 shows the author wanted to avoid a piece
of evidence that could have helped objectors argue against expansion. It says:
"Final sentence — true, but a strong statement for objectors to use … Can we
play down?"

Admitting that evidence on the number of car journeys relating to a larger airport
was flawed, one internal memo said: "Model underestimates short-distance car journeys

This weekend Greening, who has led opposition to Heathrow expansion, accused
the government of a cover-up.

"It has taken a year and a half to get these documents. Without the involvement
of the Information Commissioner’s enforcement team they would still be hidden
away," she said.

"You can see why they wanted to suppress them. They show by their own words they
thought their relationship could be seen as collusion.

"They also show how they embarked on an exercise in damage limitation to ensure
that the public would not have any more information than was absolutely necessary.
This was more skewed than the public could ever have realised."

A DfT spokesman said: "These documents illustrate drafting work in progress ahead
of the Heathrow consultation. In compiling documents for publication, there will
always be discussions. These help ensure the final product is both accurate and

He added: "Any accusation of collusion with BAA is nonsense."

The government is pressing ahead with plans for a third runway at Heathrow. The
Tories have said they will shelve the proposals if they win the next election.