Labour fixes Election line on airport expansion

Labour seems have got its line fixed for the General Election. 

  • More airport capacity essential to Britain’s economic success.
  • The need, therefore, to take a decision shortly after the Election.
  • Say nothing until Davies comes out.  Won’t necessarily endorse the Davies recommendations.
  • Mind not made up between a 3rd runway at Heathrow or a 2nd one at Gatwick.
  • Environmental considerations will be factored into the decision.

Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, spelt out the line in his key note speech to the Labour Conference: “Whatever the outcome of the Howard Davies review into airport capacity, we must resolve to finally make a decision on airport capacity in London and the South-East — expanding capacity while taking into account the environmental impact.  No more kicking into the long-grass, but taking the right decisions for Britain’s long-term future.

Mary Creagh, the Shadow Transport Secretary, said something very similar in her speech: “More airport capacity is vital to Britain’s economic success, but David Cameron was too weak to deliver it. So he kicked it into the long grass. That led to Boris Johnson’s fantasy island airport …. The one that would have closed Heathrow, destroyed jobs and put London at risk of flooding. £5 million of public money wasted on his vanity project, but it was never about the country’s future. …. The next Labour Government will make a swift decision on airport expansion in the national interest.”

At the fringe meetings I attended, Hilary Benn, Andrew Adonis and David Lammy came out with much the same line, though both Adonis and Lammy are thought to be a Heathrow supporters.  The only open Heathrow support I heard of was from Margaret Hodge but since the days of the big battles about road building twenty years ago Hodge has had a reputation of being blind to environmental impacts of these kind of projects and shouldn’t be seen as typical in the Party.

Labour is trying to reassure big business it will not dither but is keenly aware of the environmental downsides of new runways, and, in particular, the toxic noise question at Heathrow.  Mary Creagh was kind enough at one of the fringes to praise the work HACAN had done on noise.

But climate change is emerging as a clear consideration in Labour’s policy-making.  I went to the SERA Rally where shadow ministers as diverse as Caroline Flint and Chukka Umunna stressed that climate change was central to the policy-making process under Ed Miliband.  The Committee on Climate Change, the Government’s advisers, argue that one new runway would not breach the country’s CO 2 targets but it is clear that, unless technology was to improve by leaps and bounds over the next 20 years, an extra runway at Gatwick or Heathrow would severely curtail the scope for growth at the other UK airports.

Labour seems to have decided that is a risk worth taking.  It believes there is a need to build a new runway in the South East.  Can it deliver?  The only one of the questions I asked at the fringe meetings that was skated over was on deliverability: “Is a third runway at Heathrow politically deliverable”.    

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