Heathrow, viewed from below. Photo: Getty Images
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The Prime Minister must get his act together on airport expansion

Once again we stand to have a major decision of national consequence determined more by the political management of the Tory party than the national interest, says Tessa Jowell.

Three years, £20million, and 342 pages later, the Airports Commission has reported. The Commission was asked to identify and recommend options to maintain the UK’s position as Europe’s most important aviation hub - where airlines direct more of their flights, linking up to other airports around the world. 

Its conclusions are, in the words of its chair Sir Howard Davies, “clear and unanimous”. This expert committee has concluded that “the best answer” is to build a third runway at Heathrow.

The Commission’s report sets out in detail the economic case for a third runway at Heathrow, alongside consideration of the alternative case for Gatwick. It would increase Britain’s GDP by between £131bn-147bn, compared with £89bn if Gatwick were expanded. The fact that Heathrow is already a hub means it would generate more long-haul trips, improving London’s connectivity and protecting the UK’s hub status. This status is currently under threat as other airports have better connectivity outside of Europe and North America. And crucially, Heathrow would create more jobs, more quickly – in an area of higher average unemployment than Gatwick.

However, as the report sets out, expansion of Heathrow would be enormously disruptive to the lives of many people. Any progress must focus very particularly on mitigating the impact on communities under the flight path.

We need to deal with existing levels of noise pollution and air pollution, and understand how a third runway would make these worse. Above all, we need to recognise that the recommendation of the Davies Commission is conditional on mitigating this impact.

Some 550,000 would be affected by noise as a result of an expanded Heathrow, compared with 22,000 in Gatwick. Building a third runway would cause 47,063 properties to be exposed to increased nitrogen dioxide air pollution – compared with 20,985 for Gatwick. And the Heathrow proposal would likely result in an additional 22.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – compared with 16.5 million tonnes for Gatwick. The potential for a real human and environmental cost is plain to see.

The Davies Commission sets out a number of conditions to soften the impact. In particular, there should be no scheduled night flights; no overall increase in noise; air quality levels should not breach EU limits; there should be enhanced compensation for those who lose their homes, and at least £1bn in a special community compensation fund for those affected by the airport; and an independent aviation noise authority should be established with real powers over flight paths and other operating procedures.

I recognise the need for additional airport capacity and would support the Davies recommendation, but on the non-negotiable basis that safeguards on noise, air pollution, traffic congestion are embedded in the operational planning.

The government have said that they will respond to Davies by Christmas. What is already clear is that the government is deeply divided, and once again we stand to have a major decision of national consequence determined more by the political management of the Tory party than the national interest.

There are great economic benefits at stake - jobs, security and the growth upon which we all rely - as everyone from the CBI to major trade unions like the GMB and Unite recognise.

By the end of the year, the government has to make a decision. I will be spending the time talking to those affected, for better or for worse. Any further delay will, in the words of Sir Howard Davies, “be increasingly costly”. Not only will the cost of the project rise, but so too the cost for the country, which is why the Prime Minister has to make his mind up.

Daily Mail
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle