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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.