September 29 2022, Kimpton Fitzroy London
Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
Where now for the country’s transport policy? Stanley Slaughter looks at the likely impact of this week's government reshuffle on transport policy
A mess would not be adequate enough a word to describe the government’s position over transport policy in general and aviation in particular. Any dreamy hopes that setting up an independent commission to look into a third runway at Heathrow and moving Justine Greening and Theresa Villiers, both opponents of such expansion, from the Department for Transport would have eased the situation must have disappeared well before Patrick McLoughlin had even sat down for his first cabinet meeting as transport secretary.
London’s mayor Boris Johnson - and increasingly Prime Minister David Cameron’s nemesis - was immediately on the airwaves with his own damning indictment of the changes. He charged that the government, which is pledged not to expand Heathrow during this parliament, was about to "ditch its promises and send yet more planes over central London".
The mayor added: "There can be only one reason to move her (Greening) - and that is to expand Heathrow airport. The third runway would mean more traffic, more noise, more pollution - and a serious reduction in the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people. We will fight this all the way.”
But Cameron deserves no sympathy for the absurd position he has boxed himself into. He merits only anger. He made the promise on behalf of the Conservatives in the last election campaign - presumably with the assistance and support of his party’s chief “strategist” George Osborne - to oppose a third runway at the already overcrowded and chaotic Heathrow.
It was done despite warnings from organisations like the CBI that Britain urgently needed more runway capacity in the south east. This was to serve the growing number of air travellers, to create space for airlines like BA to fly direct to emerging economies like China, India and those in South America and Asia, as well as stemming the flow of travellers away from London to cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt where airports were expanding. All of these factors threaten to damage the ailing British economy.
Instead Cameron chose the grossly cynical route of a promise made solely to attract voters opposed to the then Labour government’s support of third runway as well as possible expansion at Stansted. It was made regardless of the country’s needs. There have now been two lost years when the government should have been planning the best way to expand capacity and to make the best use of what is available. Instead, indefensibly, it has spent them scratching around trying to come up with something that sounded plausible enough to pass as an aviation policy. It has failed for the simple reason that without expansion, it does not have one.
Britain is a trading nation and making it easy for people to go out to the world and trade should be high on the list of any British government’s priorities. The government has failed its business people in this respect. This has nothing to do with kick starting the economy. Airports, like high speed railways, take decades to plan and build. For example, the first phase of the HS2 high speed line from London to Birmingham is not likely to be open until 2026. It is about planning for the future. But the government has dithered for two years, hamstrung by an impractical and damaging promise.
What now? Greening and Villiers have been moved on for having the temerity of supporting government policy. McLoughlin, the former chief whip who was a junior aviation at the tail end of the Thatcher government in 1989-92, has no doubt been briefed to prepare a decision for a third runway. This has been in the air for months with lobbyists reporting a steady stream of Conservative MPs “converting” to the idea of the third runway. As these include Grant Shapps, the new party chairman and, allegedly, Osborne, a change of policy – what one political commentator called “the mother and father of all U-turns” – seems just a matter of time. Although it looks like any real decision will be timed for just after the next election in 2015 – given the imminent announcement of the independent commission.
But the Boris factor is likely to loom large. He doesn’t want a third runway but a whole new airport built on the south east coast. He clearly is in no mood to let the matter rest.
But the government’s transport problems do not end there. With Cheryl Gillan’s removal from the Welsh Office, she is likely to have far more time – and inclination – to pursue her opposition to the HS line going through her constituency of Chesham and Amersham. This opposition is echoed in most constituencies through which the line is destined to pass and should not be regarded lightly.
The same could be said about the spluttering anger of Sir Richard Branson at losing the franchise for the West Coast mainline. The government has awarded the franchise to the First Group based on figures which raised many eyebrows. Nor has the government in the face of Branson’s criticism come up with any strong argument which makes it clear why it backed First over Virgin other than the hotly disputed figures. Branson has now taken the matter to court.
This matters to business travellers, as does the never-ending debate on airport capacity, because it affects the way they travel. Thousands of business people use the West Coast line each week and they do not want a franchise that fails to deliver.
Uncertainty does not create ideal conditions for the traveller. Decisions are needed as quickly as possible - but they should be taken in the interests of the country, not for shallow electoral advantage.