Feverish political speculation is rife at the moment, but one piece of conjecture really caught my eye last week. It was in the Daily Mail and reportedly came from a ‘senior Conservative source’.
The report suggested that although the expansion of Heathrow Airport was backed by the independent Airports Commission, is supported by the government, has been through a public consultation and received support in Conservative, Labour, SNP and DUP manifestos at the general election — it may still be blocked.
So fevered are these political times that the Mail neglected to recall that a poll of Labour MPs in the last Parliament showed support for Heathrow’s expansion at 74 per cent.
Parliament is due to vote on Heathrow’s new runway proposal this winter. A full planning process will follow, with further public consultation. These things can take time, especially for the biggest privately funded infrastructure project in Europe. But we have now been shilly-shallying on this decision since the 1940s, so I found it absurd that the Mail would suggest that the Government would wobble on a Parliamentary vote for fear of a Labour attempt to defeat it.
As someone who has had the privilege to serve as a Labour minister in government, and as someone who has spent most of his life living in west London, I cannot imagine Labour turning its back on such a big decision now. But I do feel the party needs to take greater ownership of the project. It fits our values.
People from outside west London and the Thames Valley underestimate local support for a new Heathrow runway. Polling shows that far more local people support expansion than oppose it, not least because the airport currently provides 76,000 local jobs.
Jobs and prosperity are at the heart of the Labour philosophy, so it should join Unite, the GMB and the TUC in leading the charge for the additional 77,000 jobs that west London and the Thames Valley will gain from the project, not to mention the 180,000 jobs that will be created across the country.
At the same time, the party must balance the economic benefits of growth and jobs with environmental sustainability. It’s important to remember that aircraft have been getting quieter and cleaner, and will continue to do so as the airport levies charges on older, more polluting aircraft. Poisonous nitrous oxide emissions are a real issue, but they are mostly due to diesel engines on our roads. Heathrow has also recently launched a scheme to name and shame the highest polluting airlines to encourage them to improve.
The public transport infrastructure serving Heathrow is changing rapidly with major developments on the way, including new western rail access, better southern access, new access to Heathrow through Crossrail, improvements to the Piccadilly line and one of the biggest car-sharing projects in Europe.
Labour has proved itself to be an excellent campaigning force, but it needs to take the next steps to gain the significant swing required for the additional 60 seats needed to win a general election. Heathrow expansion presents the party with an opportunity to lead, not oppose.
And for those of us who grew up in an age of much louder aircraft and higher unemployment under the flight path in west London, this represents a golden opportunity to eradicate local youth unemployment through the creation of 10,000 apprenticeships. After too many years of wrangling, there is light at the end of a long tunnel that could deliver growth, jobs and sustainability.
These, after all, are Labour values to the core.
Parmjit Dhanda is a former Labour government minister, and is executive director of Back Heathrow. Back Heathrow represents more than 100,000 residents who are campaigning for a bigger, better and more sustainable Heathrow Airport