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.

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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.