Monday, 12 January 2009

Do you remember Concorde, Mr Wilson?

Those were the days when you could set your watch by the flight to New York and any other noise was totally insignificant by comparison.

A decision on the proposed expansion of Heathrow is due this week (Thursday probably), and protesters on both sides are mounting their high and low horses for the final symbolic clash to show their sympathies remain strong and the war will go on even though the main action of the battle has already passed.

Environmentally-concerned/anti-capitalist/anti-development protesters Climate Rush have headed for Heathrow to cause disruption to the mainly domestic traffic at Terminal 1 (what a cheery name that is!).

The pro-expansion camp has been equally active with the founding of the 2M Group covering local councils which claim to represent the 2 million people who will be most affected by the plans (as though all those 2m would all be in favour) and a raft of contingency plans in the event that the development is halted.

My local borough isn't included in the 2M Group (I ask why not? was it charging too much?), but it certainly is on the western end of the approach path to Heathrow, so whatever complaints I have about the noise or pollution the airport generates they will surely multiply as you approach the nearer vicinities of Heathrow.


It is with interest therefore that I read the imaginatively-titled Westminster Diary blog of Reading East MP Conservative (and former SDP-member) Rob Wilson.

Mr Wilson is worried that his constituents (read: voters) will see the quality of their life badly impacted (read: the tranquility of their large suburban homes disturbed). Now it's not like conservative voters in this part of the world (who just happen to be people with the largest, leafiest gardens and thickest hedges) are the worst effected by any aircraft noise, but I fully accept they are more likely to notice the difference considering they are more sheltered from the general intrusion of noise (primarily from cars) regularly suffered by most who live closer to the burgeoning metropolis of Reading.

The irony is that those who notice the difference and complain loudest about it are those who are often the main creators of it.

Of course, Mr Wilson is not really worried about his voters - ahem - constituents, he is worried about the electoral chances of his local party and is therefore trying to match his opposite number in Reading West stride for stride as they auction off their granny's morals in an attempt to keep their grasping clutches on the privileges of office.

Listening to our local representatives you might think that there is universal opposition to the expansion of Heathrow, yet in almost the same breath they both support plans to extend the western terminus of Crossrail to the town, primarily to encourage enhanced, easier (read: increased) access to the airport, so they argue.

To be fair to Mr Wilson, he has asked for a wider debate on the issues, but stories reach me about how his more populist stance is flowing against the tide of business opinion supporting his party, especially now that the economy is in a downturn and everyone is looking for any boost they can get.

Salter, however, is a different kettle of fish. He is a skillful exponent of the syncretic school of politics - appearing to speak for all sides while upsetting everyone equally. The man guards his feifdom jealously - he is as slippery as a fish and will steal your thunder in a flash if he sees any attempt to challenge him. He hasn't come out in favour or against any of the proposals, rather he tries to pacify opposition to the Labour government by 'urging a re-think', which is about as Brownite as you can get.

To Salter it doesn't matter that support for the expansion may force the government into breaking legally-binding commitments on environmental targets and undermine the legitimacy of Labour's regulatory and legislative regime (sound familiar?), just so long as his regime survives.

In the midst of all this arguing I think the two major points are being lost.

-Expansion of Heathrow is the cheap option: it builds on the existing infrastructure of the already conjested area.
-Expansion of Heathrow is the most controversial option: it is in the most developed and most heavily populated part of the country.

A third runway at Heathrow will not solve any transport issues alone, and may actually create new problems on the roads and rail.

Ultimately whether or not expansion of Heathrow does go ahead, plans for a second runway at Manchester, Gatwick and Stansted are still on the table, while completely new hub (4-runways+) remains an option at Cliffe in the Thames estuary (estimated at an initial cost of £30bn).

So, as far as I'm concerned fighting tooth and nail against incremental change is an admission of strategic retreat in the face of an irresistible argument.

If the environmentalists really want to change public thinking then they must reconcile the economics through argument rather than through assumption: the environment is not a passive victim; airports and airlines are businesses which do not overstretch their capacity except out of necessity; it is a fallacy to claim that capitalists are intrinsically rapacious. And they will lose the argument if they continue resorting to insulting our intelligence.

When capacity is reached (Heathrow regularly tops 99% capacity) there are limited options - expansion, diversion or rationalisation.

The voluble opposition to expansion has clearly drowned out the alternatives, they would do well to pick them up and make more use of them... all in the spirit of reaching a concord.

BTW If anyone is in any doubt I am strongly against the published proposals. Major additional development in the area is likely to have a disproportionately large negative effect for any calculable benefit. If additional runway space is required, then the alternatives should be considered first.

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