Friday 14 March 2008

Terminal Disaster

The flight test
Airport expansion is fast emerging as the key issue by which the public judges parties' green credentials. I wasn't at the ceremony to open terminal five at Heathrow this morning, although the airport is in my constituency: no matter how stunning the architecture of the building, there is no way I can celebrate this symbol of the collusion between the aviation industry and successive governments to put profits before the future of our planet and the communities I represent.
Heathrow expansion is an object lesson in the dominance of a rapacious sector of industry over government decision-making.
I was at both the fourth and fifth terminal planning inquiries and witnessed the promises given my constituents by the government and the British Airports Authority that if permission were given for the latest expansion proposal, there would be no further expansion of the airport.
On each occasion, literally within months of the commitment being given to no further growth of the airport, I watched government ministers succumb to the lobbying of BAA and the Heathrow aviation companies to announce the next expansion.
The site proposed for Heathrow's third runway is fast becoming the key battleground for the campaign against climate change. Many believe that if the third runway cannot be prevented, there is no hope for the implementation of the major policy shift that is needed across government if we are to have any chance of tackling climate change by cutting carbon emissions.
The government's decision on whether to back a third runway is therefore rapidly becoming the litmus test of whether it is serious about climate change.
After ploughing a fairly lonely furrow over the last 30 years against airport expansion, I am immensely encouraged to see the breadth of opposition there is now to Heathrow growth. Most national newspapers are opposed. All the major London mayoral candidates have joined to declare their opposition. And MPs and councils representing more than 2 million people have come out against.
Nevertheless, the prime minister and Ruth Kelly, the transport secretary, have consistently expressed their support for further Heathrow expansion. This reflects the old politics of government decision-making on aviation policy.
For decades, government decisions have been dominated by the aviation industry. Transport ministers are surrounded in office by advisers who have either come from the aviation industry or are then recruited by it. In recent years, this has even applied to officials and advisers in No 10 itself.
Who was it Tony Blair called in to develop his long-term transport policy? Tony Eddington, former chief executive of BA, who - surprise, surprise - recommended further airport expansion.
As we have also seen, in the Department of Transport's recent consultation over Heathrow, BAA has been given licence virtually to dictate government documents.
Many in BAA and the airline companies are beginning to worry that the game is up. Gordon Brown is looking increasingly isolated on this issue.
A substantial broad alliance with elements of the antiwar movement is building against the third runway. It is emerging as a potential general election issue to test the green credentials of the parties. I warn the prime minister that he ignores popular feeling on this issue at his peril.