In March 2010, campaigners who had fought the then New Labour government’s proposals to build a third runway at Heathrow were celebrating a notable victory. The High Court had ruled that the government’s go ahead in 2009 was unlawful as it had ignored their own commitments on climate change and had misrepresented the business case for expanding the airport.
At the same time, both the Tory and Lib Dem manifestos were promising to dump the plans. After the election, the proposals were duly shelved, with then Transport Secretary Justine Greening stating in November 2011 that ‘the political reality is that the runway decision has been made and it is done’.
But nine months is a long time in politics. It’s looking as if the dead third runway has risen from the grave.
Cameron’s U turn
Although David Cameron insists that the Tories are sticking to that manifesto pledge, at least until the next election, they are clearly preparing the ground for a U turn, with the establishment of a cross-party commission to look at airport capacity in the south-east.
It’s obvious that the Tories are desperate to ditch their opposition to the third runway and they’re prepared to risk dissent within the party – both Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith have threatened to make trouble – and alienating their electorate to do it. (It’s worth noting that Boris Johnson’s favoured new airport in the Thames estuary would move the burden of the additional runway away from the west London boroughs which re-elected him, a fact which presumably has not escaped his notice.)
The question is: why the U turn? The revival of this zombie runway comes at the same time as Cameron and Osborne are launching measures to stimulate growth, like changing the rules for house extensions for a year. (I didn’t know that making people get planning permission before they build on their gardens was the single greatest cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression, but then, I’m not an economist). A new proposal for a third runway at Heathrow would presumably be presented in that context – it’s building new infrastructure, it will create jobs, it’s positively Keynsian!
In reality, the arguments that an extra runway at Heathrow would be of general economic benefit are unconvincing, as David Cameron himself said in 2008. But this isn’t about more jobs for people in Hounslow or Hillingdon. This is about the City.
The bankers’ airport
It’s an indication of whose interests are being served by re-opening the question of London’s airport capacity that the chair of the commission looking into it is a former head of the CBI. What keeps the idea of a third runway at Heathrow lurching is London’s position as Europe’s foremost financial centre, and the determination not to lose it.
To understand what’s going on with the third runway proposals, you have to go back to 2008, to the Open Skies agreement which lifted restrictions on which airlines could fly between Europe and the US, and allowed any airline to put on direct flights between any European and any US city. It also infuriated the European airlines by giving US carriers the right to fly routes between European cities, while still keeping the US domestic market closed to their European counterparts, with the asymmetry we’re used to in agreements between the US and its allies.
By ending the monopoly of a few airlines over trans-Atlantic flights out of Heathrow, the Open Skies agreement potentially opened up Heathrow to many more flights, if it could get the extra capacity to handle them, but it also presented some risks.
Heathrow is the largest airport in Europe and routes from it are among the most lucrative. It functions as a gateway for trans-Atlantic passengers to the rest of Europe, reflecting and bolstering the position of London as the European financial centre closest to the US. This dialectical relationship between Heathrow and the City must be obvious to the City, but it depends on the airlines being able to get the slots at Heathrow that they want.
If the limits of the airport’s capacity mean that they can’t get them, they now have much more freedom to go elsewhere. They could put on additional routes between the US and Paris, or Frankfurt, or Amsterdam instead, and business travellers could discover that London isn’t the only city in Europe in which to change planes and do business. It’s that threat - that Heathrow could become just another national airport, and London just another European city - which BAA is busy dangling in front of David Cameron, and to which David Cameron appears to be listening.
The campaign against the third runway at Heathrow succeeded not just because it was able to build a wide coalition against the airport, but because it could show that arguments for the third runway – that it was necessary for the economy, that it would create jobs – were false (See John Stewart’s excellent Victory against all the odds).
If we really have to do it all again, we could add that the third runway may be presented as a way to stimulate growth, but it’s really just for the benefit of bankers.
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