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The should and yes of Heathrow

Observations: The third runway

The government used a piece of spin to pass the third of its own “strict environmental tests” for approving the Heathrow airport expansion, official documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal.

In the absence of any convincing data to explain how millions of extra passengers would get to the airport, Department for Transport (DfT) officials have glossed over concerns about congestion by inserting what they described as a “narrative” into the consultation paper that the Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon, relied on to approve the new runway in January.

The 2003 Future of Air Transport white paper set out a “surface access condition”, requiring improved public transport to offset the expected increase in road and rail congestion. But in late 2007, when civil servants were preparing to launch the official consultation proposing Heathrow expansion, they found that they could not establish whether they would meet the white paper’s requirements.

It was only on 4 September 2007 – two months before the launch of the consultation – that the DfT and the airport owner, BAA, first discussed what the white paper demanded. No conclusion was recorded, but BAA was told what data it was required to produce.

Nevertheless, the DfT’s October 2007 risk register, which tracks the risks to the project, recorded continuing concern that BAA’s forecasts were “insufficient to demonstrate how increased passenger numbers will be accommodated”. Officials feared that solutions to road congestion would prove “difficult to deliver [or] politically unacceptable”. With neither reliable data nor plausible solutions, officials wrote that “a narrative about surface access has been added to the draft [consultation document]”.

When the consultation paper was published in November 2007, it was accompanied by BAA’s surface access report. Buried in this were forecasts that shattered the white paper’s promise of reduced congestion. Improvements to public transport “would have little impact on road traffic levels”. In 2020, public transport would service a smaller proportion of those using a three-runway airport than the share who would use it to access a two-runway airport. The third runway would generate an additional ten million car and taxi journeys a year.

But the “narrative” in the main consultation paper masked such concerns, claiming that a full transport strategy should be a matter for a future planning application. Focusing on the existing patterns of public transport use, it reached a qualified conclusion: “On this basis, the level of public transport provision in a third runway scenario looks (at this early stage) to be sufficient to manage the levels of forecast demand.”

A DfT spokesman has confirmed that when Hoon approved the new runway he relied on this narrative. Hoon claimed that he was “satisfied with the department’s analysis that by 2020 there should be more than enough public transport capacity to meet peak-hour demand”. In the words of the BBC political satire The Thick of It, “should” does not mean “yes”.

So Hoon applied the wrong test and then fudged it. There is as yet no improved public transport planned to cope with the third runway, even as public transport’s share of travellers declines and road congestion worsens.

The documents exposing the government’s “fix” were obtained by the Conservative MP Justine Greening, who told the New Statesman: “Mr Hoon seems

hell-bent on pressing ahead with expansion whatever the risks. With political decision-making this reckless, it’s no wonder voters across London are turning their back on Labour.”

A spokesman for the 2M group of local authorities, which may legally challenge the expansion, told the NS that its lawyers were looking very carefully at whether the surface access test had been met. l

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload