A Risky Business: Government spin plan over Heathrow revealed

Posted by christian — 27 March 2009 at 10:49am - Comments

Risk register

Given that Heathrow's third runway is by many (fairly reasonable) standards a hugely unpopular and environmentally damaging project which would flatten a community, significantly contribute to rising UK carbon emissions, and be campaigned against by those bloody NGOs, it's fair to say that it must have been a bit of a headache for the person project managing the task of getting it approved.

If you're a project management type, a risk register (and I had no idea about this before last week), is a document where you have to list everything that could go wrong with the project, how likely it is to happen and how much of a problem it would be. You also have to say what you're going to do about it.

For Heathrow, drawing up such a document must have been a bit of a nightmare. If you got your hands on the risk register written by the civil servant tasked with getting approval for a third runway at Heathrow, it would probably contain some interesting stuff. So we did. You can download it and have a read for yourselves, but here's some highlights.


The government were/are very worried about losing the economic and environmental arguments over Heathrow

RIsk register

The Heathrow risk register is a list of damaging scenarios. First up: 'Govt loses the economic and CO2 arguments on LHR'. The coloured boxes from left to right indicate this is listed as 'high' impact and ‘medium' likelihood, combining to give a 'high' exposure to risk for the government.

You'd think that the government would be pretty worried about this, and that they might do something about it. But under 'Measures in place to manage [risk]' it just says 'Mitigating actions to be identified over the summer'. The obvious conclusion is that at the end of July last year (when the assessment dates from) the government had no idea how to strengthen the economic or environmental arguments for the runway convincingly - there was nothing they could do to prevent a 'high' exposure to the risk of failing to convince, either economically or environmentally.

Which probably explains the eventual weakness of the arguments presented for the economic benefits of the third runway, as well as the embarrassingly weak attempt by Geoff Hoon to spin the third runway as 'green' by banging on about vaguely defined 'green planes' or 'green landing slots', or trying to argue that oversight from the Environment Agency - (whose chairman Chris Smith quickly stated that the decision to build the runway was the wrong one) and from the Civil Aviation Authority - (who seemed unaware and they were about to be thrust into the role, and less than enthusiastic about it.) would in any way make the runway less of an environmental liability and an economic white elephant.


Direct action is a problem for the government and BAA

Risk register

One thing the risk register does show is just how touchy the civil servants are about direct action - it's one of the key things they list as a potential problem, both because it could delay progress, and because it causes acute embarrassment. From "Direct action by opponents of Heathrow expansion leads to short term disruption at Heathrow and negative publicity" to "Strength of opposition to expansion at Heathrow led to direct action during consultation period," it's clear that protests around the issue, backed by the sheer scale of the opposition they face, has been a real concern.


Local opposition could 'undermine' consultation

RIsk register

The government had to undertake a public consultation before plans for the runway could be approved. But they already knew it was a wildly unpopular scheme.

Now, the risk register obviously isn't going to admit that if the consultation goes against the runway they'll spin the results, but one rather delicately worded risk is "Strength of opposition from residents under flight path in relation to noise and pollution undermines consultation." - Which is listed as 'high' impact and 'high' likelihood.

It's interesting to note that according to the risk register they didn't think a planned DfT/BAA programme of trying to wow the locals into submissions with events, meetings and 'stakeholder engagement' sessions would reduce the risk at all. In other words, they had no confidence in their ability to change people's minds leading up to the consultation - presumably again because their arguments were weak.

And it's a rather strange way to put it - 'undermine'. To my (admittedly rather naïve) mind the point of a consultation is to find out what people think, not to rubber stamp something that's already been decided. Of course, at the time we were saying that the consultation was a sham - (chunks were written by BAA, it was full of leading questions, etc, etc.) The risk registers really only support the diagnosis that rigging the consultation was a desperate effort to 'manage the risk' of the consultation being 'undermined' by actually being accurate.

In the end, of course, despite the best efforts of the government and BAA, the consultation came back with only 11 per cent of local residents supporting a third runway (and a significant chunk of those worked for BAA).

So they just ignored it anyway.


And finally...

Risk register

Some light relief. Maybe every risk register now has to include the possibility of leaving some massive dataset of taxpayer's details in the back of a taxi, but it's not particularly reassuring to see "Loss of Heathrow consultation response database" in there as a realistic risk. Although it has got a 'low' likelihood.

But if they were including this kind of stuff, why not other 'far out' scenarios - 'Geoff Hoon has a road to Damascus conversion and joins Greenpeace' for example, or 'Peter Mandelson knocks himself unconscious in critical cabinet meeting'.

Well, maybe in the next FOI request... (Download the Heathrow risk registers here.)

About Christian Hunt


Sea ice geek, former web editor at GP.

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