Simon Jenkins on Heathrow: Government support for this polluting 3rd runway is macho folly

The building of a third runway at Heathrow must be the worst decision taken by a British government in modern times. There is nothing in it but private profit for a Spanish company that appears to have the British cabinet in thrall. That a rich European city should expand rather than contract a major airport in a built-up area defies belief.

For half a century successive governments have refused to contemplate such expansion, and put forward usable alternatives. In 2009, David Cameron swore to oppose a third runway, “no ifs, no buts”. He was explicitly supported by none other than Theresa May, Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson. What was at the time BAA plc – now Heathrow Airport Holdings – had accepted what seemed the inevitable, and was planning to shift much of its business to Stansted. It was stopped and ordered to sell Stansted by Gordon Brown. The third runway was Heathrow’s revenge. It has more lives than a cat.

The hapless transport secretary, Chris Grayling, burbled this week the old Heathrow line about “global connectivity”. But hub airports are for yesterday, replaced by a demand for point-to-point journeys. Grayling said Heathrow was about business and “global trading”. It is not. Less than 20% of travellers using London’s airports are business users. Air travel is overwhelmingly for leisure. Airports talk of “business use” because they are ashamed being part of the tourism industry, which Grayling never once mentioned.

Grayling added that Heathrow was full. But so are the M25 and M6, so is Victoria station, and he has no plans for them. The difference is that London has two other airports at Gatwick and Stansted, the latter shockingly underused chiefly because it has been denied a high-speed rail link. As for Gatwick, if its far less damaging expansion had been allowed in 2012, its new capacity would today be up and running.

Grayling promises that the new runway will not go ahead if Heathrow does not “meet the UK’s air quality commitment”. But he knows it won’t. He knows neither his department nor Heathrow has ever kept a promise of this sort. Likewise he has abandoned a previous promise against night-time flying at Heathrow. He has also abandoned any pledge against using public money for the runway. And what of Grayling’s “tens of thousands of new jobs”? Heathrow is in the most over-heated labour market in Britain, which will get worse when he stifles immigration with Brexit.

After the 1971 Roskill commission, any idea of a bigger Heathrow was dismissed. Sacrificing rural or estuarial land to help tourists flee abroad might be bad enough, but it was preferable to demolishing 800 houses for just one runway. Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Rome, Hong Kong have all moved their new airports out of town. Boris Johnson’s estuary site might have been expensive, but at least it was civilised – though his current threat to lie down in front of the Heathrow bulldozers might solve two of May’s problems in one go.

Now civilised planning has gone backwards. Either a rail link to Stansted or a bigger Gatwick was the obvious answer to London capacity. Sensible regional planning would direct surplus demand to Birmingham, East Midlands and Manchester. Appeasing tourist travel in the south-east is not a national priority. This mess is purely the result of Cameron capitulating to corporate pressure in 2012 and setting up the Davies committee, which was swallowed whole by Heathrow’s lobbyists.

Quick guide

Heathrow – third runway

The reality lies in the departure boards. They are full of domestic and European short-haul flights, not intercontinental business ones. Heathrow is not a public utility but a private company, naturally seeking maximum profit. If permitted, it will of course do so at the expense of the taxpayer and pollution of Londoners. Like past promises of silent jets and short take-off runways, corporate promises on air travel are meaningless.

Privatisation has benefits, but it has made infrastructure projects chaotic and toxic. Assessment of value is easily outgunned by politics. The ruinous Hinkley Point power station was opposed by the energy department, but pushed through by Cameron to be nice to the Chinese. The no less ruinous HS2 was opposed by the Treasury as the silliest railway of all time. The defence chiefs (other than the navy) think the two supercarriers are costly madness. No one to my knowledge has audited the proposed vast Thames super-sewer.

In each case a project’s backers taunt those who question value-for-money as wimps, and laud big spending as national machismo. To “push through” a megaproject against the moaners shows a minister as go-getting, virile and dynamic. Less expensive alternatives, such as energy saving, track upgrades or better army kit, offer no headlines and no kudos.

Even opposition politicians are seized by the frenzy. Labour’s Ed Balls pledged to cancel HS2 if it went “a penny over £50bn”, just as Labour is now pledging to oppose Heathrow “if it fails pollution targets”. Both conditionals are rubbish. Vanity spending is as old as the Roman empire. When a soldier protested the expense of Julius Caesar’s victory parade, he was set on by the mob and his corpse was nailed to the Forum wall. No politician wants to be seen spoiling a good party.

The politicisation of what should be an objective decision corrupts government. This week’s hysteria about Heathrow – brought forward deliberately with ministers on the run – has been cynical. The runway was reported by the BBC as resting not on its merits, but on whether Theresa May had the guts to push it through. In other words, to the BBC, courage means yes. Game, set and match to the lobbyists.

 Simon Jenkins is a Guardian staff columnist