Heathrow expansion: Six reasons why it should be seen as a failure of government

2000px-heathrow_airport_map_with_third_runway-svgIn today’s post Steven Griggs and David Howarth outline six reasons why the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow airport represents a failure of government, that will be hotly contested and continue to generate controversy well into the future.

In his statement announcing the UK government’s decision to support a third runway at Heathrow, the transport secretary Chris Grayling said that the decision was ‘good for Britain’ and that the new proposals were ‘best for our future, and best for the whole country and its regions.’ The ‘truly momentous’ decision to expand Heathrow, it is claimed, will improve the UK’s connections with the rest of the world, while increasing international trade and creating jobs.

Most business leaders and unions welcomed the long-anticipated decision, stressing its vital role in stimulating economic growth, especially in a post-Brexit world. Politicians across the divide, apart from the Greens and Liberal Democrats, rallied to support the government. Ominously though, Zac Goldsmith resigned his Richmond Park seat and collective cabinet responsibility has been loosened to accommodate dissenting voices, most notably Boris Johnson and Justine Greening. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell remain firmly opposed to expansion, though once again they stand opposed to most of their parliamentary party.

There is no question that more airport capacity at Heathrow and Gatwick is demanded by powerful forces and vested interests. The airports are running at 98% of their capacity, and the demand for more flights shows little sign of waning. For many commentators, economic growth and global connectivity will no doubt be fuelled by the expansion of the UK’s only hub airport, though precise levels are disputed.

But once the dust has settled, and the flag-waving and trumpeting ended, what are we to make of the decision? Is this truly a triumph of strong leadership, an end to ‘dithering’ and the confident action of a government of ‘builders’ committed to ensuring Britain’s future? Perhaps a little less spin and a little more caution would not go amiss. In reality, the May government’s support for Heathrow expansion is the outcome of a series of government failures and policy reversals, which is likely to end in tears. Here are six reasons why.

First, the belated decision to expand Heathrow is a failure of political leadership. It represents the inability of the Coalition government to keep to the line agreed in May 2010, when it declared a moratorium on Heathrow expansion. But the Conservative government has chosen not to stick with David Cameron’s ‘No ifs, no buts’ promise that there would be no new runway at Heathrow. Instead, appearing to buckle against an intense pro-expansion campaign led by business, supporters of Heathrow and London First, the Coalition agreed in 2012 to set up the Airports Commission and thus to reopen the case for more expansion. Indeed, the terms of reference of the Commission directed Sir Howard Davies to examine where the new expansion should be – Gatwick, Heathrow or even “Boris Island” – and not whether there should be expansion in the South-East of England at all. Finally, the aviation industry’s demand for hub capacity made it difficult to advance any serious consideration of spreading expansion across all London airports; not just Heathrow, but Gatwick and Stansted, as well as regional airports.

But, secondly, the Davies Commission failed to deliver ‘an evidence-based consensus’, which it was hoped would take the politics out of this controversial decision. If anything, the conflicts between different airports, between airports and their surrounding communities, amongst politicians (within and across parties, and between tiers of government), and between many environmental groups and business representatives, has intensified and looks certain to continue.

And, thirdly, seen in a longer historical perspective, it is the failure to recognise that the wrong decision was made to build Heathrow in the 1940s. Because it’s in the wrong geographical location, causing untold misery and suffering of noise pollution for all those residents and households languishing under its flightpaths, further expansion can only exacerbate such detrimental effects. In fact, the decision might be seen as a failure of path dependency and institutional inertia, which goes to the heart of the British state and system of government.

Here one only has to think of the Roskill Commission inquiry into the third airport at London in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the delays surrounding the inquiry into Heathrow’s planned fifth terminal. Roskill’s findings were ignored by government in favour of a new airport at Maplin, only for government to abandon this plan, when the 1973 oil crisis hit the aviation industry and local MPs threatened to rebel. The upshot has been a reliance on the production and dissemination of a ‘fantasmatic’, have-your-cake-and-eat-it narrative – we can have airport expansion and environmental protection – in which the horrific threat of not acting, and thus falling behind our foreign competitors, is bolstered by the beatific prospect of adding billions to the British economy, if and when the new runway is actually built.

A fourth failure of the new scheme relates to the problem of air quality, which is the cause of major respiratory problems and premature deaths. The problem of meeting legally binding air quality targets in London (and surrounding areas) was not properly addressed by the Davies Commission and government plans to meet its 2030 air quality targets are highly contested, as the recent court case by legal campaigners, Client-Earth, goes to show. The idea that a reduction of car emissions in and around the airport, for example, will enable the expansion plans to meet the required air pollution targets looks wildly optimistic.

Fifthly, and crucially, the plans constitute a failure to tackle the problem of climate change. The anti-expansion coalition that successfully challenged New Labour’s 2003 Air Transport White Paper, which promised major airport expansion, put the problem of aircraft emissions and our international commitments to curb climate change at the centre of their campaign. Indeed, in setting out a broad consultation exercise about airport capacity in March 2011, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond, dismissed the previous thinking as ‘out of date because it fails to give sufficient weight to the challenge of climate change’. The previous Labour government had ‘got the balance [between environmental protection and expansion] wrong.’ Yet once again environmental considerations have been shoved into the background, both by the Airports commission and the wider public debate that has ensued.

A final and equally telling problem is that in all likelihood the plans will end in another disappointing failure to deliver a mega infrastructure project on time and within costs. Legal challenges by councils and other affected parties, the precise financing of the airport proposals – who, for example, will pay for the required surface infrastructures needed to ensure its feasibility? – coupled, of course, with the inevitable political challenges will invariably delay the implementation of plans – if it happens at all.

Already local councils are preparing to review the decisions and planning procedures in the courts, while local resident groups and direct action campaigners such as Plane Stupid are sharpening their preferred tools of protest. Indeed, we can expect the third runway at Heathrow to become a symbolic battle for environmental campaigners. Heathrow could well up being the next Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the proposed new international airport outside Nantes which continues to attract widespread criticism and protest across the whole of France and Europe.

Steven Griggs is Professor of Public Policy at De Montfort University and a core member of CURA. David Howarth is Professor in Social and Political Theory at the University of Essex