climate change democracy transport

Heathrow: behold the power of lobbying

So, Britain’s most infamous climate change zombie rises again – last night MPs voted to allow a third runway at Heathrow airport. It’s a big victory for business interests over common sense and the environment, and it’s a case study in how lobbying power works. To recap on developments so far:

  • In 2009 Gordon Brown’s Labour government greenlit Heathrow expansion. The Conservatives came out strongly against it. “Local people will be devastated by the Government’s decision” said Theresa May at the time.
  • The plans met fierce opposition and legal challenges, culminating in the High Court throwing out the government’s business plan as ‘untenable‘.
  • In the 2010 election, the Conservative manifesto pledged to “stop the third runway and instead
    link Heathrow directly to our high speed rail network, providing an alternative to thousands of flights.”
  • The coalition government kept its promise, but the aviation lobbyists doubled down. With everyone worrying about recession, they linked Heathrow expansion to economic recovery. Many MPs began to agitate for re-opening the question, and the government fobbed them off with the creation of an Airports Commission to look into the issue of aviation in the London region.
  • The Commission advised in 2015 that Britain should expand Heathrow, which is little surprise since that is essentially what it was briefed to conclude. David Cameron had been an outspoken opponent of the third runway and a U-turn would be embarrasing, so he delayed acting on its results. In their 2015 election platforms, both Labour and the Conservatives promised a decision on the Airports Commission’s rulings, without either of them specifying what it would be. Still, Cameron couldn’t bring himself to do it and delayed the decision in 2015 and then again in 2016.
  • Cameron was last seen floundering in the English Channel with a referendum around his ankles. Almost immediately, the Heathrow lobbyists began linking airport expansion to a successful Brexit: “If you’re outside the EU, you’ve got to have a plan for how you’re going to trade with the rest of the world. Heathrow’s the only game in town to do that.”
  • Theresa May won the post-Brexit leadership contest, went back and deleted anti-Heathrow posts from her website, and then announced a new consultation. That culminated in yesterday’s vote in Parliament.

There is nothing like the Heathrow story that so clearly shows the power of lobbying in Britain. Adverts and billboard campaigns have been going on for years in London. There are astroturfing projects like BackHeathrow. Full pages ads have featured regularly in London papers or in publications that MPs are known to read, such as the Economist. Business summits and the Heathrow Supply Chain Tour won the backing of business groups. For the rest of us, there were heartwarming treats like the #HeathrowBears TV adverts at Christmas.

Numerous reports have spun the Heathrow expansion in ways that appease the arguments against it. I heard a local MP on the radio this morning talking about the importance of Heathrow’s environmental plans that accompany the third runway. I tuned in halfway and didn’t catch his name, but I did recognise his arguments as lifted almost directly from the Heathrow 2.0 vision paper. That’s their heroically greenwashed banner at the top of the post there, from the community engagement site A World Worth Travelling.

It’s not all the Conservatives’ fault either. Heathrow sponsored the Scottish Nationalists Party conference, and they switched position and came out in favour of the runway. Events such as the Heathrow Business Summit Scotland, and advertising using Scottish exporters, sealed the deal and the Scottish Government signed a memorandum of understanding with Heathrow.

As for Labour, the Heathrow lobby have come in through the unions. They have deliberately wooed them with a ‘5 pledges to trade unions’ campaign. They have built bridges and relationships: Unite has a Heathrow Liason Committee; something called the Heathrow Skills Taskforce was launched at the TUC conference. They have grown the network of support by reaching beyond the transport unions, highlighting how many jobs would be safeguarded if they used British steel. Though Jeremy Corbyn is quietly against the third runway, the unions are strongly in favour and Labour MPs have voted accordingly.

For all this effort on the part of Heathrow, it remains as bad an idea now as it was ten years ago. It’s still fundamentally incompatible with climate change targets. The case for it is as flawed as it was when it was thrown out by the High Court. And once again, it kicks off an enormous campaign against it, with legal challenges, environmental protests, and political careers on the line.

The lobbyists are nursing a hangover this morning, but as the first legal challenges are already being lodged, they know that there is plenty of work still coming their way.

  • PS – if you’re wondering who benefits most here, Heathrow is owned by a consortium of seven big investment firms, including the Spanish firm Ferrovial, and the sovereign wealth funds of Qatar, China and Singapore.

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