Heathrow and the crisis of vision

The government’s dithering over a third runway is an international embarrassment.

As UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson pushes for a no-fly zone in Syria, you can’t help but wonder if he was inspired by events closer to home. Prime minister Theresa May this week announced yet more deliberation, ducking and dithering on Heathrow’s severely delayed third runway. There will now be another public consultation and another Commons committee report. MPs will have to wait another 18 months before they can vote on anything binding.

Plans for the runway were first set out in a white paper in 2003. May’s proposals follow 13 years of public consultation, postponement, approval, a High Court-prompted policy review, cancellation, the establishment of an Airports Commission, the disbandment of the Airports Commission, and the establishment of a Cabinet subcommittee which will deliver its decision next week – reviewing exactly the same proposals as the Airports Commission did last year. Assuming a parliamentary bill passes, Heathrow will still have to apply for planning permission, and the government can expect to fight more court battles before a single shovel touches the soil.

The meal successive UK governments have made of Heathrow expansion has become an international embarrassment. The heads of Amsterdam Schiphol have begun sending lavish cakes to Heathrow to celebrate every new delay. Due to the UK’s chronic lack of airport capacity, more and more air traffic is going via Schiphol on the route to and from London. Seven cakes have been received so far and another is on its way.

Opposition to major infrastructure projects is to be expected from shire Tories and environmentalists. The former want to protect the green and pleasant land around their manors and cottages. The latter want to save the planet at the expense of us seeing more of it for ourselves. Before the EU referendum, the Green Party campaigned for Remain and even declared themselves to be committed ‘in principle’ to the free movement of people – but they are committed in reality to stopping airport expansion and reducing air travel. Eco-Etonian Zac Goldsmith straddles both constituencies. Goldsmith promises to resign if Heathrow gets the go-ahead, which ought to be enough incentive to tarmac over the entire south-east. 

Then there are the opportunists. Boris Johnson has previously pledged to lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop construction of the third runway at Heathow, but, naturally, will not resign from Cabinet should it go ahead. The Lib Dems have accused May of ‘kicking the can down the road’, not because they think she should just get on with it, but because they believe they are ‘the real opposition to Heathrow’.

The constant delays, however, have little to do with the strength of this ragtag opposition. An overwhelming majority of MPs back Heathrow expansion, and even residents of the Heathrow area are broadly in favour of a third runway. Rather, our political elite is so lacking in vision, principle and commitment to transforming the UK, that it is unable to stand up to a handful of cranks. The endless consultations, commissions and subcommittees needed to lay down some tarmac reveal a political class – of whom May is the epitome – unable and unwilling to fight the political battles necessary to advance society. Whatever plan May’s subcommittee settles on next week, don’t expect it to get off the ground anytime soon.

Fraser Myers is a producer at WORLDbytes.

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