The Third Runway – A Victory of Sorts?

I’m wondering if it is really true. I’m wondering if this really is victory – because no-one seems quite sure either way yet.

After all the campaigning and letter-writing and protesting, and after the government’s controversial decision on the matter, the ‘announcement’ that BAA will not be submitting plans for the third runway at Heathrow before the 2010 general election slipped out with barely a whimper last week in an article in The Sunday Times.

As one of the thousands of people who live under the Heathrow flightpath and who have been involved in the various local campaigns against the third runway, I should be dancing in the streets and cracking open the cooking champagne as a result of this apparently new decision, but, if anything, it’s left me feeling even more confused than before.

The final decision on the third runway was always going to be a complex and controversial one. Any financial and economic benefits of its development had to be weighed against the impact of a new runway on the lives of the communities in the immediate vicinity and under the wider flightpath of the airport. Or at least that was the theory, anyway.

Of course, when major projects like this are in the planning stages, the agencies involved (whether of big business, government, or – in this case – both) will always make lots of colourful and seemingly sincere noise about how they intend to listen to and take on board the views of ordinary people, particularly those who live locally to the development, and about how this type of consultation is an essential aspect of their decision-making process.

All of which they expect people to believe, and all of which is as likely to meaningfully happen as… well, a very unlikely thing. Forgive the cynicism, but having spent my entire life living under the Heathrow flightpath, it seems to me that neither the government nor BAA have ever seriously listened to the local people who also live, work and go to school with the constant roar of jet planes coming and going overhead at a rate of about one every ninety seconds (and that’s even with the policy of runway alternation in place). Believe me, that’s not fun.

So when the government gave the third runway the official OK back in January of this year, I was angry – but not surprised. Big business will always have more clout with government than the people that said government are elected to represent in the first place. And big business was always going to get its way, it seemed.

In this case, and despite this recent and apparent climb-down, it seems that big business (namely BAA) has got its way again. This latest move is just buying them some time – except no-one appears to have noticed this amid the backslapping.

And on that subject, is it just me, or have some of the jubilant spokespeople quoted in The Sunday Times got a little bit ahead of themselves? It seems to me that they are working on a rather large assumption Yes, BAA have insisted that they were never going to submit any plans until after next year’s elections – but that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the third runway, as the likes of the shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers and Edward Lister of Wandsworth council and the 2M group seem to think.

Of course, that still applies even if the Tories and their much-vaunted anti-expansion plans get in (assuming that does happen – and working on that assumption alone is a little worrying on a number of levels), because, quite frankly, I don’t believe a single word that comes out of David Cameron’s mouth, and neither should anyone else.

New Labour, on the other hand, already have some serious previous (under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) in worrying away at the corpses of dead or moribund policies – what’s the betting that, if (by some miracle) they did win the next election, they’d be completely unable to leave this one alone either?

Fortunately, there are some groups who do actually see this latest move from BAA for what it is – in part, anyway – including HACAN ClearSkies, whose response to the report was that “[t]he champagne is still on ice but this really does look like the end of the road for the third runway”.

But if you wave enough money – or possibilities for advancement – at any politician, from any party, and principles, morals, ethics, and often basic human decency go straight out the window. Conference and manifesto promises (and even full-blown, voted-on, actual policies) are truly flexible things in hands like these.

Which may well mean that we haven’t seen the end of the third runway just yet.

A close reading of the article in The Sunday Times paints a slightly different picture to that drawn by even the most dubious and difficult to convince of the runway’s opponents. What jumped out at me was this interesting little comment, almost hidden by the jubilation: “[p]ublicly, BAA executives are urging the Tories not to “close the door” on expansion plans and say they are still working on the project”.

That doesn’t suggest complete capitulation to me.

And an equally interesting report appeared yesterday, which also (to a cynic like me) suggests BAA haven’t given up yet. I suspect that they haven’t suddenly developed a much-needed social conscience when they announced that they would buy 700 homes which were/are threatened by the third runway in order to (their words): “reduce the uncertainty faced by residents wishing to sell their property (subject to eligibility)”. It’s the ‘subject to eligibility’ bit I like. Classy touch, that.

I’d love it if this really was the end of the third runway plans, but I just can’t bring myself to believe that it is. Not yet, anyway – there is still some way to go if the further expansion of Heathrow truly is to be stopped. This all just seems too good to be true, and you know what is usually said about that…

We may have won the battle, but we sure as hell haven’t won the war.

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