“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

1 July 2015

Heathrow expansion: the monster which will never be sated



A few questions:

1) What sort of country (and indeed world) do we want to leave to our children and grandchildren?

2) Do we care about quality of life and, if so, what does it mean?

3) Are we serious about valuing our environment and the natural world, or are we happy to keep on despoiling and degrading them?

4) Are we serious about tackling climate change, and if not, are we prepared to face the consequences of it?

5) What priority does economic activity take in relation to these things, and is this priority indefinite or time-limited?


These questions seem pretty important and fundamental to me, but they are questions that hardly ever get asked in our mainstream political debate, let alone answered. We have a democratic political system, but it often seems more dedicated to avoiding big and difficult questions rather than confronting them.

Ironically perhaps, the latter point is not far from the position of the aviation lobby and its media supporters. They think that democracy gets in the way of decision-making and advocate ‘taking the politics out’ of or ‘depoliticising’ key decisions like that of where to build a new runway in the South East of England. That means taking the democracy out of it, so taking the role of ordinary people out of it. Ironically again, rather many politicians take the same line – people after all can be desperately inconvenient when you are trying to get something done.

Howard Davies has finished spending our £20 million on his Airports Commission report and came to the same conclusion he started with by recommending a new runway at Heathrow on the edge of West London, adding to the two existing ones there. Prime Minister David Cameron has said he and his people will read this rather large tome in full before coming to a decision by the end of the year on whether to go ahead or go for the other option of a second runway at Gatwick. There is also the potential – mentioned as likely by many political commentators – that there will be no new runway at all.

Labour has enthusiastically piled in on Davies’ side in advocating Heathrow, subject to the airport meeting targets on air quality and noise reduction which the report stipulates.

Already the problems with these recommendations are rising to the surface – not least that the Commission has grossly underestimated the publicly-funded cost of improving transport access to the hugely expanded site, which it has put at around £5 billion compared to Transport for London’s estimate of more like £20 billion. The commitments to air quality and noise reduction also seem desperately flawed. Once you’ve built an airport and are operating it, there’s not a lot anyone can do if it and the aircraft using it pollute a lot, make a lot of noise and operate flights in the middle of the night because of delays or just because they feel like it. There are exceptions to every rule, and Heathrow and its backers are expert at getting what they want.

The line of the aviation industry and business lobby is that London – and Britain – needs additional airport capacity. This is using words dishonestly for the sake of self-interest and ideology. There is no need for more runway capacity at Heathrow or Gatwick. That is to misuse the word ‘need’ as if it counts as absolute and objective.

The need for more capacity is that of businesses and lobbyists who stand to benefit from it. It is subjective and predicated on a particular future environment that would need that capacity itself to come into being. That environment which it promises is one that is more crowded, more stressed and more intensively worked – besides being more polluted and noisier for more people. The drive to intensification creates more intensification which drives more intensification. This is the economic system that we are attached to, and it is our democracy’s role to place strict limits on it – whether on airport expansion, employment legislation, wages or anything else.

This is about a lot more than whether to lay down a big slab of concrete where eight hundred homes are currently, or spreading aviation exhaust fumes and noise over whole new swathes of London and the South East of England.

Labour’s decision to go along with the safe, generalised, Establishment consensus by advocating Heathrow expansion is not a surprise.

We hear a lot of blather from Labour about ‘Labour values’, but underlying that we find a largely empty space when it comes to any version of the good life on which to base those values. There is a vague, airy kind of version that people hold roughly equating to the vision in John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’: that if everyone was like us and there was no religion and borders, then the world would live as one and everything would be fine.

The left’s vision of the good is too often permanently stuck over the horizon like that, conditional on us doing all the things that we need to do to bring it to that undefined ideal state. We never get there. If we were more honest we’d admit that we haven’t given it much thought what it would mean to be there.

As a result perhaps, Labour too easily falls into a sort of lazy consensus mode on big questions like this, going along with the generalised consensus view which is generally based on economic considerations (those promoted by vested interests) and little else.

But it is for democratic politics to decide whether it wants to keep feeding this monster – and funding it too. We know what its side-effects are, whether at Heathrow or Gatwick – loss of land, housing and natural habitat, increasing noise, pollution, congestion and the concomitant need for more roads and other infrastructure; also more people coming in which creates additional pressures on these things and public services too. (That is not to mention global heating through carbon emissions - and perhaps there was a message in Heathrow registerng a British record high July temperature of 36.7ºC on the day of the Airport Commission report.)

This drive to more and more is the dominant political movement of our times - a 'stealthy form of authoritarianism' as I have called it before. But sometime, somewhere along the line, someone needs to ask: “What is all this for? What are we actually trying to achieve here?

It seems to be just about there being more money around, and that isn’t a good enough reason for me.

I think it’s about time we started to say ‘enough’.

2 comments:

  1. Really good article.

    I really couldn't live in London. Lest I come across as the chippy northerner, I used to love the capital in the late 90s and early 00s but it has changed way too much. And sadly, my home, Manchester, is following exactly the same path. The de facto second city (secretly agreed with the Tories after Major's 1992 victory in return for no complaining) apes London in every way possible except size and wealth. And as such it feels like... nowhere. Sterile, corporate, ''multicultural''... the city which produced the Industrial Revolution, the Trade Union Congress and Joy Division / The Smiths / the Stone Roses / The Hacienda is for me a now very un-Mancunian place where the people who made the city what it was - for better or for worse - have been replaced. I would go as far to say as this includes our Afro-Caribbean community who added so much to the city's counter culture and put up with so much crap.

    As a friend from Liverpool remarked, ''the wealth in Manchester hasn't trickled out - look at Trinity and Miles Platting, the people from there don't work in the new economy''. And indeed they don't - the compete for the cleaning and security jobs with the new immigrants. And for that reason I am very sensitive about blaming the poor. In some of the UK's city's, they've never had a look in.

    I'm rambling off topic and getting onto predictable territory but this whole globalised neoliberal economy thing really is, as we say up here, bobbins.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Phil; I get you completely.

      Heathrow expansion is but a part of a much bigger thing - the increasing globalisation and intensification and delocalisation (forgive all the isms) of the world and our various parts of it. There is little in this brave new world for people who don't buy into the glossy, desituated version of existence that our masters of the universe offer. Staying, remaining, valuing what you find around you is verboten unless it's striving and innovating - not that there's much wrong with those things, but not everyone can be a part of them, and they keep on eating and eating. Someday it must stop, or what is left of our shrivelling ecosystems will eat it up for us. But we plough on regardless, because that's what the system demands of us.

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