Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Airport expansion: is the green movement winning the battle but losing the war?

One of the downsides of having a radio alarm and of being tragically middle class enough to set it to Radio 4 is that you sometimes wake up to the burbling of Cabinet Ministers. Yesterday, it was Justine Greening, being pressed by John Humphrys to say whether she would resign if her government approved a third runway at Heathrow. She eventually caved and admitted it would be "difficult" for her to stay on, which duly became the headline in later editions of that day's papers.

And the story's rumbled on today, with a report being published by the Parliamentary Aviation Group arguing that the UK needs new airport capacity either at Heathrow or at a new hub airport. Incidentally, this group is serviced by a consultancy called MHP Communications, which does public affairs work for the transport sector but doesn't publish a full list of its clients - so there's really no way of knowing whether it's a front for industry.

Either way, it's been obvious for a while that the aviation industry is mounting a seriously concerted campaign for expansion. I have to go through Westminster tube quite regularly for work, and for several weeks I couldn't avoid seeing these purple monstrosities plastered over literally every surface, from ticket barriers to escalators:

They had numerous other oh-so-witty slogans as well: "Nothing grows without routes", "UK economic growth, this is your final call", and so on and so on. My first thought (after controlling the impulse to vomit) was "why hasn't this been subvertised?" Turns out it was, but I guess that must have been speedily dealt with by station staff, to ensure that MPs arriving at the House of Commons could enjoy BAA's propaganda undisturbed.

This, and seemingly endless headlines in the Evening Standard about how badly London needs new airport capacity, are clearly the tip of the lobbying iceberg. If these posters (which must have cost a fortune) are the bit we get to see, how many breakfasts, lunches, dinners, receptions, private meetings and briefings must have been going on behind the scenes?

Meanwhile, the environmental movement seems to be missing in action. I did look for signs of life before writing this blog, in case I've just not been paying attention, but all I could find was a little-read blog from WWF and Greenpeace's press comment on yesterday's news. I assume they have also been doing their bit behind the scenes - at least, I bloody hope so - but when a powerful industry is throwing so much cash and influence at an issue, surely a groundswell of public pressure is the only thing that could genuinely redress the balance?

All I can think is that environmental NGOs are keeping a watching brief but not mobilising their supporters because they think the risk of a third runway being approved is low. If today's news is anything to go by, this confidence could be misplaced. But even if they're right, my worry is that they'll win the battle but lose the war: that while everyone fixates on the third runway, the wider argument about airport expansion is being quietly lost to the lobbyists.

The No Third Runway campaign has always been a strange alliance of greens and locals, and Justine Greening (whose constituency is under Heathrow's flightpath) clearly falls into the latter camp. And she's not the only one: there is clearly a huge nexus of powerful people, from Boris Johnson to David Cameron, who oppose the third runway but are openly in favour of airport expansion and decidedly indifferent to developing policies to reduce aviation emissions. Basically, even if the third runway isn't built, some form of expansion of the UK's airport capacity looks increasingly likely. We shouldn't kid ourselves that the environmental argument has been won.

There's a general feeling of tiredness and demoralisation in the green movement at the moment, but if there's one thing we all love, it's having a good enemy - and BAA, whose website proudly proclaims it to be "at the forefront of the sustainable aviation debate", is a pretty good enemy. Surely it's time for civil society to wade into this battle?

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