Leading article: A runway to the past

 

Share
Related Topics

Like the lights of the fourth plane in the queue to land at Heathrow, we could see this coming from several miles off. Sure enough, David Cameron in a speech on Monday and George Osborne in the Budget said that the country needs more airport capacity in the south-east of England. As we report today, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor want to press ahead with a new scheme – or revive an old one – to turn RAF Northolt, just six miles away, into a "sixth terminal" for Heathrow.

This newspaper was never wholly persuaded by Mr Cameron's conversion to a green aviation policy, although we naturally welcomed the Conservatives' manifesto promise to cancel the building of a third runway at Heathrow. Equally, we were pleased with the coalition agreement, which confirmed the policy on Heathrow and also said: "We will refuse permission for additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted." After the next election, however, Gatwick in particular might be back in play.

We were right, therefore, to doubt how far the greening of the Transport Department really went. Justine Greening, the Secretary of State since October, is the MP for Putney, one of many west London Conservative constituencies suffering from aircraft noise, whose voters do not want more. It was clear, even before he became Prime Minister, that Mr Cameron's opposition to more runways owed more to London nimbyism and to gesture politics than to a policy to minimise climate change.

So it proved when, earlier this year, Mr Cameron showed a more open mind than before on "Boris Island" – the plan for an airport in the Thames estuary. This is the sort of scheme that gave futurism a bad name in the 1970s. The Prime Minister's support for the Mayor of London's project exposed his hypocrisy. The argument from climate change was abandoned; all that seemed to matter was that the new runways were in the middle of the sea where few voters lived.

Now it seems that, if Mr Cameron could be persuaded of the so-called business case for more airport capacity, the voting power of west London's residents may not be such an obstacle, this far from the next election.

And so, only two months later, Mr Cameron, who once confessed that "I'm not a deeply ideological person", seems to have been influenced by the Chancellor's impatience with environmentalism and by his desperation to foster economic growth. Never mind that the best way to promote growth in the short term would be to cut public spending less sharply. Never mind that last week's Budget was a disguised admission that the Government's economic policy had been found wanting. Hence the mistaken decisions to cut the 50p top rate of income tax and to pursue "infrastructure" projects such as the Heathrow U-turn, neither of which will affect growth for many years and both of which come at a significant cost in other dimensions of our national life.

Let us restate the green case against a "predict and provide" policy of ever-increasing air traffic. We accept that it is easier for a newspaper than it is for a practising politician to say that the growth of air traffic should be constrained. But aviation is the fastest-growing source of carbon dioxide emissions, mainly because there has been no international agreement to tax jet fuel. The most efficient way to minimise global warming would be to use the price mechanism to suppress demand for flying. Because that is difficult to achieve globally, limited airport capacity may be the most practical way of achieving the same ends. If we had a competitive market in landing slots at airports in the South- east, their price could act as a substitute carbon tax. That would help to allocate them efficiently. It could mean more expensive holidays, but this is a price worth paying in the long run.

The Independent on Sunday recognises that there are good arguments on the other side, which Mr Osborne has been pressing. We put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage if we unilaterally increase the cost of flying from British airports. But air travel may not be that important for new economic growth in the late 21st century. A greater prize is within our reach: that of a leadership role for Britain in low-carbon enterprise and low-carbon technology. Building a better 20th-century infrastructure is no role for a forward-looking government.

Mr Cameron once insisted that protecting the environment and promoting the economy were not in conflict. Whatever happened to his brave vision of green growth?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Analyst

£30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable software house is looking ...

Application Support Analyst / Junior SQL Server DBA

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established professional services...

Commercial Litigation

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION SO...

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Assistant Editor: Domestic violence is no petty matter

Siobhan Norton
 

There’s nothing wrong with GM

Steve Connor
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried