This splurge of money on a folly will lead to the perfect political fudge for Johnson. Photo: Getty
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Boris Johnson owes Londoners an apology for wasting public money over airport folly

The Thames estuary airport idea has been rejected; the Mayor of London wasted £5.2m on lobbying for it.

As expected, the Airports Commission yesterday put the Mayor of London's pet project, a Thames Estuary airport, out of its misery and definitively ruled the proposal off its final shortlist. While this came as no surprise, the decision throws up considerable ramifications politically and for London taxpayers. 

While hundreds of column inches have been dedicated to the impact of the decision, it is worth remembering the context in which Boris Johnson has pursued this vanity project. The Mayor first launched his brainchild in 2011, and architects' impressions of the airport have adorned newspaper pages ever since. Less reported, however, was the fact that none of the major players in the aviation industry ever got behind the proposal, nor did the local council, or other national politicians and experts, leaving Boris to act as the solitary cheerleader for the plans.

The inclusion of the estuary option in Davies’ interim report in December gave the proposal a temporary stay of execution, but resulted in a period of in-depth examination which led to four independent reports exposing major flaws with the proposal. These reports pointed to the huge environmental, financial and safety risks associated with the plans, with a headline £120bn price tag – the equivalent of building another eight Crossrails. This led Politics.co.uk to describe the scrutiny as "the final nail in the coffin" of an estuary airport".

In this light, then, the Mayor's decision – just weeks earlier – to sign off an extra £2m worth of expenditure on lobbying for his plans, showed tremendous chutzpah. Indeed, the extension of this allocated funding took the total envelope for the Mayor's lobbying exercise to £5.2m. At a time when any form of support for his proposals was sorely lacking and with the writing quite obviously on the wall Boris should not have been throwing good money after bad on further support for the plans.

On learning that the whole exercise has cost up to £5.2m, one is left with the sour taste that Boris probably knew the scheme was doomed to fail from an early stage, but ploughed on regardless because of the platform it gave him as a mainstream political figure. It has allowed him to posture as a blue-sky thinker when realistically his proposal never had a chance of solving the conundrum of airport capacity in the south east.

Whilst the Mayor continues to celebrate his doomed Estuary Airport, I think Boris Johnson owes Londoners an apology. In the time that he has splurged £5.2m of taxpayers’ money, Londoners have suffered years of inflation-busting fare rises, seen ten fire stations closed and now face plans for 900 jobs cuts on the London Underground.

What is more, instead of accepting the Commission’s decision yesterday with dignity, Boris had the audacity to come out fighting, saying that he would continue to lobby for an estuary airport as the long term solution. In light of the waste of taxpayers’ money I have written to TfL to ask if it will prevent Boris from spending any more public funds in support of an estuary airport now that it has officially and firmly been ruled off the Commission’s shortlist.      

What hasn’t escaped the attention of politicos is the fact that yesterday’s decision might actually work in Boris’ favour. If Boris gives up the ghost and accepts that the estuary option is dead (as he may or may not do), it means that he no is longer left advocating the closure of Heathrow– a major local employer in Uxbridge – and the demolition of west London’s economy. 

He can now oppose further expansion at Heathrow, but support its current operations – the perfect political fudge for an incoming candidate. What he cannot escape though, is the waste of £5m of valuable public funds – something he should now apologise for.

Val Shawcross AM is London Assembly Member for Lambeth and Southwark and transport spokeswoman for the London Assembly Labour Group

Val Shawcross is transport spokeswoman for the London Assembly Labour Group 

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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