In the face of stiff opposition, Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon recently announced the go-ahead for the £9 billion expansion of Heathrow Airport after Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the needs of the economy and the environment had to be balanced.
Both Mr Hoon and Mr Brown have attempted to convince Ministers and the public that the new runway is essential to Britain’s business in a globalised economy and will offer guarantees that environmental sanctions will not affect the Government’s carbon emission targets.
They are failing to convince. Last year, over half a million flights left our shores and 87% of air users in Britain did so for leisure and tourism reasons. Due to the rise of low-cost companies, most notably Easyjet and Ryanair, it is now possible to fly across Europe for a single penny, with tax and extras added.
Even at Heathrow, only a third of users claim their flight is purely for business purposes, but how many of these claims are believable and how many involve a knowing look from the boss and a quiet word about packing the swimsuit?
Companies such as BAA (whom own Heathrow and six other airports) continue to borrow, invest, speculate and build debt by indulging these projects and, despite the all-too obvious warning signs, the Government still seem unwilling or incapable of standing up to them.
As much as anything else, it is poor politics. The public now know the over-extended ambition, overblown promise and excess of big business has led us to this precarious point. Brown’s continued calls for a new era of personal responsibility sound increasingly hypocritical.
Brown is hoping that, when the dust settles, the third runway will help our economy and his own standing as Prime Minister. The runway will create more jobs, more business and consumerism, more spending and plenty of tax, as well as encouraging the aviation industry to invest in greener, less polluting planes. On paper it is undoubtedly attractive, even if the figures the Department of Transport are using are based on increasingly tenuous long-term projections as our economy becomes more unstable.
The overwhelming impression is the third runway will have a significant and long term impact on the environment and a shorter and less significant impact on the economy, and this is what the public is going to remember.
Members of Brown’s own cabinet oppose the runway, the Conservatives have vowed to scrap it if they win the next election, and the No Third Runway Action Group have insisted: “This is not the end. It is simply the end of the beginning.”
Considering the anger and frustration with which the general public have greeted the announcement, it is clear the third runway is far from a forgone conclusion.