Alistair Osborne of the Times: Heathrow expansion shows Gove’s air pollution strategy is hot air
No government minister ever got anywhere without being able to think two contradictory ideas at once. So why should Michael Gove be different?
The environment secretary’s just published his Clean Air Strategy, complete with the rallying cry: “We must take strong, urgent action.” And what sort of action has the government he represents got in mind? That’s right: building a £14 billion third runway at Heathrow. Yes, the same one that transport secretary Chris Grayling admits may well cause more pollution. Or, as last year’s Airports National Policy Statement put it: “Increases in emissions of pollutants during the construction or operational phases of the scheme could result in the worsening of local air quality.”
Bizarrely, the H-word doesn’t get a mention in Mr Gove’s 109-page document. But maybe he didn’t want to draw attention to one awkward fact: that air quality around the airport is already in breach of EU limits for nitrogen dioxide emissions. True, Heathrow’s not the main culprit: the key cause is the cars on the adjacent M4, M25 and A40. The airport reckons it directly contributes only 16 per cent of emissions at two key monitoring sites. Even so, the government is yet to spell out how things will be improved by adding 260,000 flights and 50 million passengers a year.
So here’s the key quandary: how to convince a judge that an airport already in breach of legal air quality limits will be less in breach after a vast expansion project. True, post-Brexit (should that ever happen), the government could simply ignore the EU’s pesky limits. But that hardly squares with Mr Gove’s latest plan. So what are the other options?
Well, Heathrow’s proposed low-emission zone within the perimeter fence will help, but the main problem is outside the fence. And even if you’re daft enough to believe its claims that it can handle an extra 50 million passengers without any rise in cars to and from the airport, what about the traffic going past?
Airports create business, £61 billion of benefits from the third runway apparently, [in fact, when the costs are subtracted from possible benefits, the net figure is somewhere between +£3 billion and about – £1.5 billion – DfT’s own figures – AW comment] which in turn creates traffic.
And even if passengers will have the option of the (delayed) Crossrail, what about the freight? Volumes are meant to be doubling. Is that also coming by public transport?
As Mr Gove reiterated yesterday, the government’s big idea is to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. But it’s years away: far too late for this year’s judicial review over a runway due to be in service by 2026.
Will a judge really allow that to go ahead on a government promise that things may be better 14 years after it starts operations, not least a promise from this government?
In fact, that’s the problem with Mr Gove’s latest effort: it’s mainly hot air. Not mentioning Heathrow tells you that.