Heathrow: Brown under pressure from his own backbenches

Posted by jossc — 4 November 2008 at 11:47am - Comments

"Yes Mr Brown, we're afraid it really is that serious..."

"Yes Mr Brown, we're afraid it really is that serious..."

Much as Gordon Brown would like to pretend otherwise, getting the go-ahead for Heathrow's third runway is still far from a done deal. With the Tories and Lib Dems having already rejected the proposal, the PM is now facing a growing rebellion from within his own party. Labour MPs, privately egged-on by cabinet ministers, have tabled a motion opposing Heathrow expansion in a last ditch attempt to persuade Mr Brown to change his mind - reminding him that not only will the third runway make it almost impossible for the government to hit its climate change targets, but that it is deeply unpopular with voters.

45 Labour MPs have already signed up to an Early Day Motion expressing their opposition. If this figure continues to rise, as it easily could with two weeks still to go before the motion closes, then the PM will find it increasingly difficult to defy opinion within his own party.

And the opposition even extends into his cabinet: environment secretary Hilary Benn rejects the plan on grounds of air and noise pollution, while the Miliband brothers Ed (who holds the energy and climate change brief) and David (foreign affairs) are convinced that the air traffic expansion resulting a third runway will undermine the UK's chances of hitting our climate change targets. Deputy Leader Harriet Harman, meanwhile, is worried about the potential effect on Labour in London; as MP for Camberwell she has an inside track on how the issue is likely to play out across the capital, with thousands more people affected by the new flightpaths, and has made her concerns known.

"This is a vote-changing issue for the electorate"
Andy Slaughter, MP for Ealing

So what keeps Mr Brown so focused on aviation expansion in the face of growing opposition, particularly when more new high-speed rail links would provide far more jobs and infrastructure around the country than ploughing money into Heathrow? The cynical answer is that Labour know they've already lost the next election and are cosying up to industries that will employ them once they're out of government (as the Tories did with armaments and banking at the end of the Major years) - they already have what appear to be unhealthy links with BAA and the nuclear industry.

While probably true of some of his lieutenants, Mr Brown's reasons are likely to be less venal. More likely the truth is that environmental questions have never loomed large on his radar - and now that we face a recession they've become even less of a priority. The PM seems to equate an expanding aviation sector with an expanding economy, thus demonstrating his lack of vision at a time when rising fuel costs are actually likely to result in a decline in the overall number of flights entering and leaving the UK.

A concerted programme of replacing Britain's ailing energy and transport infrastructure would be an eminently sensible way of working our way out of the recession, while dealing with the twin challenges of energy security and climate change. Many Labour MPs are coming round to this way of thinking, and fear that the Mr Brown's thinking has not kept pace with events. Ealing MP Andy Slaughter said recently that "This is a vote-changing issue for the electorate, and with the Tories and the Liberals Democrats opposed to expansion, marginal seats will be lost unless the policy is rethought. There has been a sense in which the government went to sleep over the issue after the aviation white paper in 2003, and yet so much has changed since then, including our policy on climate change."

There is still time for Gordon Brown to change his stance, and with opposition growing both within his backbenchers and his cabinet, here's hoping that he finally gets the message.

Full text of the Early Day Motion proposed by John Grogan MP:
That this House urges the Government to rethink its plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport and to give full consideration to alternative solutions; regrets the Government's heavy reliance on data supplied by the BAA in assessing the case for expansion and notes the likely forthcoming break up of BAA's ownership of three of London's airports following the investigation by the Competition Committee; believes that the consultation paper Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport was deeply flawed, as it paid insufficient regard to the costs of air and noise pollution in the surrounding areas and the commitment to curb carbon dioxide emissions to tackle climate change; regrets the fact that provisions to improve high speed rail lines from Heathrow to major cities have not been fully explored, along with the potential of other UK airports to handle more long haul flights; and urges the Government to initiate a consultation on a new national planning policy statement on the theme of airports and high speed rail.

About Joss

Bass player and backing vox in the four piece beat combo that is the UK Greenpeace Web Experience. In my 6 years here I've worked on almost every campaign and been fascinated by them all to varying degrees. Just now I'm working on Peace and Oceans - which means getting rid of our Trident nuclear weapons system and creating large marine reserves so that marine life can get some protection from overfishing.

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