UK faces Heathrow legal action

Controversial plans to build a third runway at Heathrow may fall foul of EU pollution regulations wi

The European environment commissioner has warned he intends to take enforcement action if Britain breaches legally binding pollution limits by allowing Heathrow airport to expand.

Local councils are also threatening to launch legal challenges if ministers go ahead with expansion plans that are already opposed by many Labour MPs.

The warning from EU Commissioner Stravros Dimas comes after it emerged that Department for Transport (DfT) officials doubted their own proposed measures to reduce pollution. The DfT’s consultation paper on Heathrow expansion concealed concerns that mitigation measures might be “too costly or impractical to implement, or politically unacceptable”.

Environment secretary Hilary Benn has promised not to “fudge” pollution limits in the new EU air quality directive but has confirmed that he intends to seek permission to delay their implementation for up to five years from 2010. Last month, Environment Agency chairman (Lord) Chris Smith criticised the government for seeking to increase flights at Heathrow during this time.

The DfT wants to use “mixed mode” operation – using both existing runways for takeoff and landing at the same time – to achieve 60,000 extra flights a year by 2015 in advance of a third runway. It has admitted that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) limits in the directive would be breached before 2015 but has pledged to deal with anticipated breaches after that date.

But the DfT’s September 2007 risk register for Heathrow expansion shows that officials assessed as “high” the risk that measures to achieve this might not be deliverable. The document, obtained by Greenpeace under the Freedom of Information Act, also shows that officials doubted whether “radical mitigation measures might be justified for a relatively short period before things improve over time.” This refers to disputed assumptions that cleaner aircraft and road vehicles will eventually provide the “headroom” for additional flights.

Commissioner Dimas has made clear that he expects Britain to comply with the directive as soon as it is implemented. His spokesperson told newstatesman.com: “We expect Member States to fully respect EU legislation. We will assess compliance [with] the NO2 limit value at the actual attainment date, and enforce it if necessary.”

The DFT document also shows that officials intentionally gave a misleading “narrative” of measures to deal with anticipated breaches after 2015. It states that “possible mitigation measures are addressed as a narrative within condoc”, a reference to the official consultation document, published two months later.

The consultation acknowledged that around 30 homes could experience illegally high levels of nitrogen dioxide during full mixed mode operation but listed possible mitigation measures, including lower speed limits, traffic management measures and surface treatments. It stated: “Although the improving trend in road vehicle emissions beyond 2015 means that any residual problems would be fully resolved by 2020, the air quality Directives will require the relevant limits to be met before then.”

The consultation concluded that full mixed mode by 2015 would achievable within pollution limits if traffic management or other measures were implemented. Although it acknowledged that the effectiveness of surface treatments was “unproven”, it did not reveal officials’ belief that other measures might have to be ruled out for financial or political reasons or the suggestion that breaches of the directive might be ignored in the short term. Instead, it referred to “Government’s overriding legal obligation to meet air quality limit values.”

In March, the Environment Agency criticised the DfT’s claims that “potential alternative measures” would bring pollution within legal limits. It stated: “Without firm plans and agreed measures we contend that the conclusion that the limit values can be met with full mixed mode cannot confidently be made.” It is now clear that DfT officials also saw their own conclusion as wishful thinking.

Hillingdon Council, whose area includes Heathrow, is one of a number of councils that is preparing to challenge any decision in favour of expanding the airport, on the grounds that the DfT’s environmental claims are flawed. Hillingdon councillor Keith Burrows, Cabinet member for Planning and Transportation said: "We will fight expansion at Heathrow all the way - if that means legal action then that's what we'll do. We do not believe that expansion, which will generate one million extra vehicle movements on roads around Heathrow, can go ahead within EU limits on nitrogen dioxide. The opposition to this expansion is overwhelming - enough is enough."

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times