Steve Richards: The Heathrow decision is not only wrong but unnecessary

Better trains should be the overwhelming priority in a country with an unreliable railway system
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The Independent Online

For 11 years the Government has liked to claim it was taking hard choices when it was quite often avoiding them. In the case of the third runway for Heathrow it has perversely reversed the cautious sequence, making a politically disastrous choice when it did not need to do so. Given the scale of opposition, the runway will probably never be built, yet Gordon Brown has used up reservoirs of political credit in order to give it the theoretical go-ahead.

The politics of the decision are toxic. The Government is placed on the wrong side of the important and fashionable environmental debate, allowing the Conservatives to look more forward looking as the next election moves into view. The environmentalists rage and are joined by a growing number of supposedly Labour-supporting celebrities. Business leaders are not universal in their support.

The current cabinet minister responsible for the environment, Ed Miliband, was opposed to the move and is now in an awkward place as he seeks to set out some genuinely ambitious environmental policies. His predecessor, Hilary Benn, was opposed too. With good cause Mliband fears that the issue could become totemic, one that could symbolise perhaps unfairly an indifference to the environment. In the meantime he risks being seen as a weak advocate for the wider cause. More widely, a significant number of Labour MPs are uneasy, and locally some seats could be lost at the next election on this issue alone.

Brown has sought to navigate a third way in announcing the go-ahead. He is becoming as determined a navigator as Tony Blair around these painfully-convoluted routes, although Brown was often critical of Blair when he sought clumsily to please as many conflicting camps as possible.

The degree to which the decision has been a cause of agonising contortions was illustrated in the Commons statement made by the Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon. There were no great proclamations about a new even more supersonic age of flying from west London, even though there will be possibly hundreds of thousands more flights a year when, or if the runway, is built. Instead Hoon talked of "green slots... green planes... toughest green targets" as if he was describing an extension to Kew Gardens. As the Conservative spokeswoman Theresa Villers pointed out, some of this is a fantasy. Airlines are exploring the potential for green technology and there has been progress, but where are all these green planes?

Yesterday, government insiders, who recognise the dangers in this decision, were at pains to highlight the strict environmental constraints that would be placed on airlines. Over the last few weeks Ed Miliband has negotiated some significant tougher conditions. Some slots will not be made available unless airlines meet strict environmental targets. The targets for carbon emission are still in place and will be applied rigidly, even if sacrifices have to be made elsewhere. I am told Hoon was acutely aware of the political sensitivities and included in a single statement a range of announcements that might have been made separately.

But these constraints in themselves raise fundamental questions. What is the point of building the runway if it is quite possible a large number of the slots will not be used? If they are all used how will the Government meet its overall carbon emission targets when hundreds of thousand more flights will be taking off from Heathrow in a few years' time?

The way the decision has been handled also raises questions about the Downing Street machine, supposedly slicker since the sweeping and much praised internal changes made last autumn. One government insider suggests that Brown was warned nine months ago that the Heathrow decision would be explosive in advance of an election. Some within the Government argue that, at the very least, the ground should have been cleared for a delay in the announcement until after the election. Other cabinet ministers suggest the policy should have been announced long ago, preventing a perception of dither and the chance for opposition to grow.

But until recently Brown was not focused on the issue. Only in the last few weeks has he become more alert to the dangers as Miliband negotiated a "green" package. One government source tells me that although Miliband played "a blinder" his efforts were too late, the equivalent of revising for exams at the last moment when more preliminary work was required.

Heathrow will now be a running story, sapping ministerial energy and attention. That is why the whole affair is misjudged. It is not as if the rest of Britain's transport problems are resolved and we have the luxury of moving on. The railways remain an overpriced and chaotic disgrace. Over Christmas we took a sleeper from Euston to Fort William in Scotland. We were kicked out at 3am in Edinburgh because the train was defective. On the way back there was chaos from Glasgow station with Scotrail officials having no idea what Virgin trains were doing. The fragmented monopolies are not delivering. Sorting out the railways is where the intense ministerial focus should be, for economic reasons as well as quality of life ones.

The actual substance of the decision in relation to Heathrow was on one level a genuinely tough choice and the arguments in favour are familiar. The number of flights is likely to expand once the recession is passed. Nothing is achieved for the environment if those journeys move from London to Germany and France, only the British economy suffers. One minister tells me alternative locations for an expansion have been explored and all of them have fatal flaws. But on another level this choice was not difficult at all. Better trains should be the overwhelming priority in a country with a fragmented and unreliable railway system.

David Cameron is convinced that the runway will never go ahead. He will not go into the next election seeking his own third way, arguing that he opposed the move, but now the decision is taken he will not reverse it. He will unequivocally state a Conservative government would scrap the plans. That is clever politics.

Brown is cunning at devising slogans that are counter-intuitive and seem to resolve internal contradictions. He once called for "pro-Euro realism", a phrase that managed to sound positive and sceptical about Europe. Entering the next election calling for a "greener, bigger Heathrow" is a counter-intuitive step too far. It is not clever politics.