Momentum is gathering behind Heathrow's third runway. We need to stop it in its tracks

Noise and pollution are bad enough blights on Londoners as it is

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The Independent Online

At 0440 yesterday morning, I was yanked awake by what sounded a very big and very heavy plane on its approach to Heathrow. By 0500 three more of these monsters had passed low overhead. It’s always hard to know – for this is no isolated occurrence – whether these pre-0500 planes are counted as part of the airport’s night flight quota, or whether they are being stacked to join the daytime quota. Either way, it was well before dawn and I was unlikely to get to sleep again, even though the planes started flying much higher after 0500 and the noise was more of a hum than a roar.

Now, if you lived in the immediate vicinity of the airport – in Staines, say, or Hounslow – or even one of the capital’s outer south-western suburbs, you might have included low-flying aircraft into your calculation. But these planes were traversing the very centre of London, as they regularly do, and waking – I would guess conservatively - upwards of half a million people.

Yet it is only in the immediate vicinity of the airport that noise has to be monitored, regulations apply and residents qualify for insulation. Noise elsewhere on the flight-path is not regarded by the aviation authorities as any real nuisance. If you try to complain, there are three separate websites for doing so and even then it is not obvious how to do it; if you penetrate that thicket, the padding in the stock replies carries no conviction at all.

The only politician who accepts, without ducking and weaving, that noise is a blight - and, of course, there are pluses and minuses to this association – is the mayor, Boris Johnson. But his ardour for an new island airport seems to have cooled following the rejection of his project in July. Nor can we rely any longer on the Labour Party to wade in on green ticket. The Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, told the Labour Party conference yesterday that all options for a new runway were on the table, including Heathrow, in an apparent effort to burnish his party’s business-friendly credentials.  

The upshot of all this is that the third runway campaign seems emboldened. For conclusive evidence, look no further than a full-page advert that appeared in newspapers on Sunday, paid for by supporters of Heathrow’s expansion.

If this had simply made the commercial argument, then we would all have known where we stood. But this advert purported to represent the broader national interest into the future, and its centrepiece was a little girl, of primary school age, sitting at her desk and eagerly putting up her hand. Here’s a flavour of the accompanying text.

“We don’t know what this little girl wants to be when she grows up. But we’ve got a pretty good idea what she’ll need to get there. By the time she and her classmates are paying their taxes, Britain’s economic health will be even more dependent on trade with other countries. ... Direct flights to long-haul destinations build twenty times more trade with /the emerging markets// them than indirect flights. They are also more environmentally efficient....

But to make all that possible, Britain needs to keep its hub airport.... which is why we need a new third runway. It will deliver more than 120,000 jobs, and least £100 billion of economic benefits the length and breadth of the country. So even if our little girl never leaves home, she’ll still feel the benefit... So while we’re imagining the future for our children, let’s stop speculating. And start building Heathrow’s new runway now.”

Note all the buttons pressed: not just the business case, but the protection of the environment, job creation, some totally undefined “economic benefits” for the country as a whole and, cue soft music – the future of “our” children. And note what is not mentioned: the noise and the pollution not just around the existing airport, but the noise, pollution and safety considerations that somehow don’t count because they are not absolutely on the airport perimeter. I hardly need add that the latest “consultation” on a new runway did not include anyone living under the London flight-paths, only those who might be considered “local” to the airport.

This advert was headed: “Heathrow expansion. It’s time we heard from our most important stakeholders.” That is what the picture of the sweet little blond child was supposed to convey. But what about other little girls, and the parents who hold down demanding jobs and collect them from school, despite losing a couple of hours sleep a night, are they not “stakeholders” in the country and its transport system, too?

Quality of life may be hard to count, but clean air and nocturnal quiet surely have a value. So why is the potential harm to residents beneath the flight-paths not set against an airport’s - dubiously calculated - commercial benefits? How many parents must there be whose little girls (and little boys) go to school tired and stressed because of noise and pollution?  The costs of lobbying, alas, make it unlikely we will see them featured in newspaper adverts, trying to cover their ears against the pre-dawn din.


Blair's boots

All in all, it’s been a good few weeks for elder statesmen. A re-born Gordon Brown became the unlikely star of Scotland’s No campaign. A former Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, was the lynchpin in the still-delicate ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. And now along comes Tony Blair to say that, whether we like it or not – and a lot of us, I would hazard, do not - the West is going to have to “use force capability on the ground” in Iraq if it wants to eradicate the threat from Islamic State.

As it happens, I heard the former British prime minister say something similarly gung-ho recently in Kiev, where he spoke on “reconciliation” at the Yalta European Strategy conference (no heckling, please, at the back). There, he suggested that the lack of Western “boots on the ground” to follow up after the removal of Gaddafi was one reason why Libya was now in such a mess.

You could extrapolate two things from this: his concern to justify once again ordering British troops into Iraq - something he intriguingly called an “exercise” rather than a “war” – and proof that his military interventionist streak has not dimmed.

From what he said, Blair sees the greater Middle East as locked in a struggle between the mediaeval and the modern. Few would probably dissent from that. Where some of us might disagree is in what “we” should do about it. On Iraq today, one school of thought supports the use of Western force, seeing IS as a threat not just regionally, but to “our” way of life, while another warns that the last mishandled intervention directly contributed to the rise of IS now, so we would be wise to leave well alone.

You can, I suppose, give Blair top marks for consistency. “Lessons learned”, though, would seem to be another story. (And still we await the report of the Iraq Inquiry, five years after it began.)