The government’s plans to expand Heathrow Airport have succeeded in one respect. They have created a veritable mass movement in opposition to the proposed third runway and new terminals. Local people, campaign groups, environmental organisations, direct action activists, local councils and MPs from all political parties have united against New Labour’s eco-vandalism.
The official “consultation” closes this week but campaigners should not hold their breath, however many people reject the plans. Transport secretary Ruth Kelly has essentially decided the government’s view in advance. She is backing the British Airports Authority’s (BAA) expansion scheme. She has claimed: “If nothing changes, Heathrow’s status as a world-class airport will be gradually eroded, jobs will be lost and the economy will suffer.”
Hers is a typical New Labour argument. The impact on the environment becomes secondary - business comes first. In a globalised capitalist economy, the role of government is to create conditions for inward investment in competition with other countries. So Heathrow must expand and be modernised to make it more attractive for executives and corporate interests.
As for the consultation itself, Hacan (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise) Clearskies, has already exposed it as a sham. Documents reveal that the Department for Transport (DfT) and BAA, owned by the global corporation Ferrovial, worked together on the wording of the consultation and on “how to handle difficult questions” at public exhibitions. The response form is incomprehensible to any resident without technical knowledge, says Hacan. Neither the form nor the summary, for example, explain what is meant by a “57dBA Leq noise contour”.
Maps of the proposed new flight paths are not included in the response form. Thousands of people across wide swathes of London therefore have no idea that the plans would affect them. Hacan estimates that the consultation should have included up to two million people in South East London and many other places rather than 200,000 response forms that have gone out. Hacan concludes: “The consultation is deeply flawed. It has added to the deep distrust there is of the government (and of the DfT in particular) by the governed. The consultation documents should have been withdrawn.”
The expansion plans will have a major impact on carbon emissions. The World Development Movement has calculated that the annual emissions from the third runway alone would be the same as Kenya’s. New Labour claims that the European Emissions Trading System will take care of this issue. This is the process where the aviation industry buys permits to pollute from other industries. Another market mechanism designed to reinforce the status quo rather than deal with the issue of cutting emissions.
The impact on the local community will be devastating. The government has admitted that a third runway would require at least 700 homes to be demolished. Local experts estimate it would be much more. “We would see destruction of homes and communities, the forced removal of people, on a scale possibly unmatched for 100 years in this country. All to make way for expansion of the airport that would cause serious noise and climate change problems and which is unlikely to contribute much to the economy,” says Hacan which is organising a mass rally in London tonight.
What campaigners have to consider is what to do when the government, inevitably, declines to listen and respond to the just concerns of people who will be affected by a third runway. In fact, it’s a common problem. Not just New Labour but the whole political system is so tied to corporate interests that the parliamentary democratic system has become a dead duck. Fighting the Heathrow expansion plans means seriously considering sustainable and democratic alternatives to both corporate power and what passes for a democratic process.
AWTW communications editor
25 February 2008