Living just four miles from Heathrow focuses the mind on the ebb and flow of political re-positioning that seems to affect the Heathrow Expansion (HE) project.
For years before the Davies Commission airports report in July 2015, MPs of constituencies in the flight path queued up to speak out against expansion. Indeed Theresa May and her chancellor, Philip Hammond, were both adamant that they would fight the project.
May has now approved it and Hammond has moved from preferring expansion at Gatwick to accepting Heathrow “as long as noise concerns are tackled”. Zac Goldsmith famously resigned as MP for Richmond in protest against Heathrow expansion but is now back in post even though the project is still on the cards.
Others like trade secretary Liam Fox are keen for the Heathrow project to go ahead without delay. One of two positive notes, from my perspective, is that the general election has left fewer Tory MPs willing to be whipped to vote in favour of Heathrow expansion. And the second is that Boris Johnson has not retracted his promise to lie down in front of the bulldozers should expansion proceed!
Within the Labour Party there are also mixed views on the future of Heathrow. As many as two-thirds could be in favour of the project because of the questionable promise of the economic benefits and the increase in job opportunities.
Unite the union is a strong backer of expansion as well. Big guns such as John McDonnell and Sadiq Khan are both firmly against it, however, for the range of worrying and intractable social, environmental and public health concerns that dog the project.
Andy McDonald, shadow transport secretary, qualified Labour’s support by saying “there would have to be overwhelming evidence that the [Davies] report and conclusions were fundamentally flawed for parliament to depart from it.”
I believe that the evidence of those flaws is piling up and that Heathrow cannot and must not go ahead. McDonnell went further last week at a conference fringe event put on by the No Third Runway Coalition when he declared the Heathrow expansion plan to be “dead” and said it could not pass Labour’s environmental tests. Additionally it is likely that the lions’ share of funding, around £14bn, would come from an overstretched public purse.
We are promised more jobs, better public transport, cleaner air, quieter aircraft and a turbo-charged national economy. Indeed if we were to buy into all the promises attached to Heathrow expansion we would probably want at least three more runways.
Last year a report commissioned by the PCS union cast into doubt the claims from Heathrow Airport Holdings that expansion would both create additional jobs and that no third runway would mean the loss of existing jobs; instead it is thought that the increased mechanisation of the airport could actually result in the loss of jobs.
It is clear that building a new runway, as well as apossible bridge over the M25 and the destruction of the historic Colnbrook village would need many additional workers. However there is a problem over where the workers would live. All of the constituencies in the locality have much lower rates of jobseekers’ allowance claimants than the national average – indeed local businesses have difficulty in recruiting staff.
If workers came from constituencies further afield then they would need accommodation and that is something of which we are very short. Local key workers such as teachers and nurses already struggle to find anywhere affordable to live.
Labour policy is to introduce a clean air act which could not co-exist with Heathrow expansion: The increase in road traffic to Heathrow in terms of air travellers, plant equipment and lorries would create gridlock and the polluting effects of slower traffic.
The promised increase in scheduled train journeys is not a solution as it is planned to be done “on the cheap” and will rely on local vehicular traffic waiting longer at the numerous local level crossings. The Heathrow section of the M25 is already the most congested route in the country. Air pollution is an invisible killer and the late night flights coming in to land do more than just wake people up or interrupt their conversations – the excessive noise is linked to heightened blood pressure and cardio vascular disease.
As a party we have spent considerable time working on an exciting and coherent industrial strategy that would support a robust clean air act. We will enable the development of low carbon-related businesses around the regions and we also commit to ensuring that 60 per cent of Britain’s energy comes from zero-carbon or renewable sources by 2030.
Since 2010, air quality and climate change targets have been seriously undermined by Tory policy and we would be damaging our own credibility should we seek to cast aside our environmental, social and public health principals for the sake of expanding an airport in such a densely populated, polluted section of the Thames Valley.
Fiona Dent was Labour’s candidate for Runnymede and Weybridge at the general election.
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