Thursday, 15 January 2009

January 2009 - Smash the system! (or just vote Tory)

On 15th January, 2009, some five months into the one hundred month countdown, Geoff Hoon made the announcement no-one was surprised to hear: there will be a third runway built at Heathrow. The runway will require the demolition of seven hundred houses and a primary school, and will expand the capacity of what is already the busiest airport in Europe by a third. Despite years of campaigning and direct action from local residents and environmentalists, the expansion will go ahead - the stupidity of the decision matched only by the hypocrisy of Labour environmental policy, which claims to be aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn't take a genius to realise that building a new runway at Heathrow cannot possibly be commensurate with this goal.

So, is this the end of the story? Clearly, the people whose houses are to be knocked down, the children whose school is to be razed to the ground, and campaigners across the world who want to see climate change taken seriously will not stop fighting. But reversing a decision of this magnitude becomes increasingly difficult once the legislative cogs start turning. One remaining option, voiced by the increasingly exasperated John Stewart, Chair of the anti-runway action group Hacan Clearskies, is to ensure that the cogs don't actually get the chance to clunk into action:

"The people of west London will be very angry indeed and their anger could spill over into direct action. Despite today's decision, we do not believe ultimately that this is a done deal. Unless Labour wins the next election these plans will never see the light of day"

Stewart's admission that even 'normal' people (like the Sispon residents) could be provoked to take part in direct action reflects a wider trend across the country in 2008. From Plane Stupid's well-to-do members reaching the roof of the Houses of Parliament, to the Greenpeace protesters who were not prosecuted for spray-painting 'Gordon' on the Kingsnorth power station smokestack, green direct action has been high profile and generally well received.

It also suggests that wherever the 'support' for building a third runway at Heathrow is coming from, it isn't primarily from the electorate. Other than BAA bods with an obvious investment in seeing the runway built, has there been any public support for the runway? Of course, ask people whether they like cheap flights and they will say yes. One of the key tactics used by proponents of the runway has been to position the third runway as the 'people's runway', where all the bargain flights will take off from. How dare we oppose the expansion of poor people's foreign fun?

As George Monbiot recently pointed out, however, the majority of cheap flights are taken not by people on low incomes, but by richer folk keen to get away for the weekend (airlines handily collect demographic information on their customers, for the purposes of 'market research'). The product of their market research is their advertising budget: no Ryanair adverts in The Sun, or The Mirror, plenty in The Telegraph .

Sadly, despite the increasing support for green direct action, the second half of John Stewart's suggestion is likely to be more prescient: the most reliable way of preventing the runway, would be to boot Labour out at the next election, and hope they haven't managed to get the ball rolling by then. Enticing as this sounds, the alternative is scarcely a reason to be cheerful - the return of a Conservative government.

David Cameron has vocally opposed the runway, in an attempt to curry favour with those who perceive Labour's environmental policy to be irrevocably rotten. And shadow transport secretary Theresa Villers, claimed that the Heathrow plans would be scrapped under a Conservative government:

"If a Conservative government is elected at the next general election there will not be a third runway at Heathrow. There is no chance of the planning process being completed before the date of the next election."

Perhaps the Conservatives truly believe that climate change is more important than short term economic gain for the South East - but is it just possible that the strength of Tory opposition might have been linked to the inevitability of the decision? No-one, not even the most committed anti-runway campaigner, seriously believed that Hoon would opt-out of a project this profitable. Might Cameron just be gambling on the possibility that as-and-when he gets his crack at the whip, the cogs will have started to clunk anyway? He would then find himself in the win-win position of presiding over the economic benefits of a project he opposed.

We all hope that there is still more to be done to derail the third runway. But pinning our hopes on a change of face at No 10 is unlikely to be the way to achieve it.


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