Heathrow / Gatwick / new runway? Residents campaign, political parties stay silent – avoiding the issue pre-election
The coalition government deliberately instructed the Airports Commission to report AFTER the general election, so there would be no active runway planning during the course of the last parliament. And the main parties are keeping pretty tight-lipped on the matter of a new runway in this election campaign, aware of just how unpopular a runway decision would be. So while the airports lobby feverishly, and the campaigners against airport expansion campaign, the electorate do not get to discuss the issue before they vote. The Tories just say they will “respond to the Commission” and Labour that it will “make a swift decision.” They are not even saying if they will take any notice of the Commission’s recommendation. Gwyn Topham, with an excellent round-up on the issue in the Guardian says: “… decisions over the nation’s infrastructure after the 7 May election will involve billions in spending; affect tens of thousands of jobs; consign many communities to blight, noise and pollution; and alter the economic map of the UK. Yet political debate about the two most critical transport projects undertaken in decades [HS2 and a new runway] is all but absent.” Policy ideas on aviation, such as they are, party by party.
Heathrow and Gatwick expansion: residents campaign, parties stay silent
The big issue: Although the timetable for airport expansion has been artificially lengthened, decisions over transport infrastructure will play a part for voters in west London and Sussex
by Gwyn Topham (Transport Correspondent)
The regular clients who used to visit Hair by Jackie in the centre of Sipson have largely moved on: many left the village in 2010, the last time it looked like a third Heathrow runway would wipe out their homes. It’s a different place now, says proprietor Jackie Clark-Basten, but things were different all round then. She recently handed in a petition at Downing Street reminding David Cameron what he said then: no new runway.
“‘No ifs, no buts’!” she recalls. “At the last election there were promises in each manifesto. For Londoners it’s a big issue, and MPs should say. Residents obviously feel strongly – but nationally is it such a big deal?”
Certainly, decisions over the nation’s infrastructure after the 7 May election will involve billions in spending; affect tens of thousands of jobs; consign many communities to blight, noise and pollution; and alter the economic map of the UK. Yet political debate about the two most critical transport projects undertaken in decades is all but absent. On HS2, the £50bn high-speed rail scheme, parties have nailed their colours to the mast, officially backing it. But when it comes toairport expansion, a decision is imminent, yet neither of the largest parties will show its hand.
The airports commission, set up by Cameron in 2012 to examine – again – whether more capacity was needed, will report by July with a recommendation to build a new runway at either Gatwick or Heathrow. Chairman Howard Davies has made no secret that the timetable was artificially elongated past the election. Even as it was kicked into the long grass, parties refused to commit to its findings.
Ministers have lined up to reassure the industry that the question would not become an election issue; the big parties’ manifestos avoid any particulars beyond the broad pledges to “respond to the commission” [Conservatives] or “make a swift decision” [Labour].
At a recent Guardian debate, Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, would only say: “It was right to get this work done. And we’ll see what the commission says.” Lilian Greenwood, of Labour’s transport team, added: “I think it’s difficult… I don’t think any party can commit. It’s a reality.”
With some in the coalition apparently ruing the decision to scrap the third runway on taking power, both parties now stress the importance of political consensus in building infrastructure – even if that consensus appears to turn into a conspiracy of silence.
Anti-expansion protesters gather at Heathrow Terminal 5. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Christine Taylor, a Stop Heathrow Expansion campaigner whose home in Harlington will effectively be lost under a third runway, says: “I think it’s scandalous. It’s a huge issue that’s going to leave thousands out of their homes, many more overflown. Add in climate change, and the fact that it’s not on the agenda – I can’t believe they’ve managed to get away with it so far.”
The airports argue vehemently that it is far from a local issue: Heathrow says the benefits of expansion, and the costs of constraint, would be felt nationally in jobs and growth; it has signed up a host of chambers of commerce and business leaders from the south-west to Scotland to put its case. Gatwick has sought similar backing.
And opposing environmental and climate change arguments clearly go beyond west London. Aviation’s definition of sustainable growth is dependent on the theoretical trading of its carbon emissions in decades ahead: while Davies claimed that an extra south-east runway was compatible with the UK’s CO2 targets, the forecasts included in the commission’s report suggest this is problematic. According to research by the Airport Environmental Federation, fares would have to rise or regional airports close to meet Britain’s carbon commitments.
Candidates in noise-blighted west London are by and large opposed to a new runway – although the Tory MP for Spelthorne and its borough council, just south of Heathrow and out of the flight path danger zone, back an extra runway. Clark-Basten laughs: “We’ve been asking Spelthorne council, is it okay to put our name on your housing list? Because we’ve got
Marginal seats nearby turned blue and yellow at the last election, when the Labour government had committed to Heathrow expansion, underscoring what Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate calls the “politically undeliverable” nature of Heathrow’s plans. Yet campaigners in Sussex think that holds for Gatwick too.
“All the parties know any new runway will be immensely unpopular and lose votes,” says Brendon Sewill of the Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign. Despite having also recently directly petitioned Downing Street, Sewill, an ex-Treasury adviser, has seen enough Sir Humphreys to be resigned to the pre-election realpolitik.
“The object of the commission was to kick the question into the long grass and report after the election. For them to announce anything before its dog has barked would be silly.”
A Conservative victory could see Boris Johnson join cabinet heavyweights including Theresa May and Philip Hammond, who would all pick Gatwick over Heathrow. But Sewill believes the electoral maths can help anti-Gatwick campaigners too. “All the way from Tunbridge Wells to Arundel, the candidates are on our side. Assuming the Tories get back in to what are safe seats, we’ve got a band of 10 ‘antis’ – which is not a bad minority party if we get into that business.”
Labour have promised a swift decision should they win, with Ed Balls appearing to strongly back Heathrow, although Ed Miliband in power would likely insist any expansion would demonstrate its compatibility with the climate change act he introduced.
Different permutations of coalition could make inaction more or less likely. The SNP has not endorsed either airport but Scottish MPs are likely to particularly value the possible connections to an expanded Heathrow. Northern Ireland generally wants a bigger Heathrow. The Lib Dems’ manifesto reiterated the party’s opposition to more runways – although the leadership is open to Gatwick expansion, and Heathrow believes they would not stand in its way again. The Green party is implacably opposed, but remains unlikely to have more than one or two MPs.
Only the smaller parties break the tacit consensus elsewhere too: the Greens would block not only new runways but HS2. Ukip would also scrap HS2. The Greens’ transport spokesperson, Rupert Read, says: “It’s no good having a transport policy that means noise, pollution, shutting down local shops and destroying communities. Transport or mobility isn’t a good in itself.” He says HS2 would accentuate dependence on London and commuting.
The big parties explicitly back HS2: unpopular or not, the shared policy risks no votes nationwide. According to McLoughlin, “Nothing will give the transport capacity increase in the way that HS2 will. It is absolutely vital to move people and freight – it is the answer.” Miliband has been outspoken in support of HS2 even in the Camden borough where he lives, and where the loss of homes and years of disruption ahead have fuelled intense opposition. The Lib Dems say: “Those who doubt the project need to think hard about what we would lose if we didn’t go ahead with HS2 – 400,000 jobs and £50bn of economic benefits.”
According to airports commission estimates, the economic benefits of a third Heathrow runway would be double that. But campaigners point out the cost: on a recent weekend they planted oaks beside the ancient church and tithe barn in the village of Harmondsworth, earmarked for demolition. Says Christine Taylor: “We’re looking to the future, even if a third runway means we don’t have one. Whoever gets elected may think they’ve got five years to get this done, but they’ve got one hell of a fight.”
Transport pledges by political party
Headline pledge is to freeze rail fares in real terms over the whole parliament. Plenty of detail on planned improvements to rail infrastructure but most of it is under way; the similar £15bn on new road schemes would be championed by the Tories and possibly targeted by other parties.
Rail gets the biggest attention: a fare freeze and a franchising review is promised, including allowing public sector operators to bid to run service. Labour will take steps to devolve power on transport and reregulate buses. It also nails its colours to the mast by postponing road schemes to fund its fare pledges.
A much bigger focus on sustainable and local travel than from either of the other main parties, with the Lib Dems putting the environment and air quality at the heart of transport policy – including a green transport act to ensure main rail routes are electrified, to push low-emission zones and encourage cleaner vehicles. The Lib Dems would build more local rail infrastructure as well as HS2, increase funding for cycling and buses, encourage moves to trams and limit rail fare rises to inflation.
The Green party
Central vision is to limit the need for transport to reduce emissions by keeping services as local as possible. That would involve a push for cheaper, devolved, greener public transport; electrifying all rail; giving free local travel to the young and students; slapping VAT on air fares; restoring the fuel duty escalator – and renationalising the railways, as well as stopping HS2 and airport expansion.
Build HS2 from Scotland down to the south; devolve power over air passenger duty, cut and axe it in Scotland.
Scrap HS2; oppose road charging; limit speed cameras; re-open Manston airport.