Thursday, 4 December 2008

Heathrow decision delay shows cabinet split

I've just done a piece for to the effect that today's delay to the decision on Heathrow expansion shows that a debate is raging at the heart of government, to quote Labour MP John Grogan.

The cabinet is clearly wobbling on the issue. Today’s announcement will be a surprise to those who thought it was a done deal, but claims to this effect appear to have been wishful thinking. No doubt it’s taking longer than expected to square the environmental circle.

Tory accusations of “dithering” over the proposed third runway have a point when you remember that this is the second time that the decision has been put back. In July, Ruth Kelly, then transport secretary, said that an announcement that had been due in August would now happen “before the end of the year”. Funnily enough, she said that:

there was still work to be done in assessing the views of 70,000 individuals and organisations consulted on the expansion.”

Her replacement, Geoff Hoon said today that “he had begun to consider the evidence, including 70,000 responses.” It isn’t clear what ministers were doing in the meantime, apart from arguing amongst themselves.

Reports of a cabinet split at the beginning of November seem to have been borne out, as have the insights of Environment Agency chairman and former minister Chris Smith, who told me last week that a “major debate” was still going on amongst ministers.

At the Agency’s conference last week, environment minister Hilary Benn appeared to go off message when he said that people who ignore issues like air pollution “don’t get it”. But climate change secretary Ed Miliband, also alleged to have been a rebel, refused to rule out ignoring breaches of legally binding air quality rules to allow expansion to go ahead.

BA are putting a brave face on the delay, although the Evening Standard’s Joe Murphy says it “will be seen in the industry as a significant loss of momentum”. Opponents like Hillingdon Council bemoan the continued uncertainty and describe the delay as part of a “long history of broken promises on Heathrow”.

The other problem is that the expansion that would precede the new runway will very soon run up against those legally binding air quality rules. Airport owner BAA and the government want to increase flights as early as 2010 through moving to mixed mode operation – using both existing runways at the same time for takeoff and landing. With nitrogen dioxide limits in the EU air quality directive due to come into force at that time, the government admits that it is dependent on delaying the directive for up to five years.

While it says with some justification that a delay will have to be sought whether or not Heathrow is expanded, what it won’t say is whether airport expansion will put back the date by which it will comply. There is in any case no guarantee that European environment commissioner Stavros Dimas will allow any delay, let alone an extended one that allows for Heathrow expansion.

According to Jim Pickard of the FT, Hoon is spinning the delay as a presentational issue, to make people think that he has taken the environmental issues into account. It seems unlikely that he would do something so cynical and then own up to it, but you never know with Hoon. It’s more likely that he knew he couldn’t take the cabinet with him.

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