Changes to planning laws pave the way for Heathrow expansion

February 21, 2008 at 1:54 am | Posted in Consultation, Deception, Distraction, Diversion, Heathrow, Heathrow airport, Heathrow expansion, Information, Lobby, MP, PR, Public relations, Rally, Westminster | Leave a comment

Unfamiliar as Britain’s planning laws are to me, several people have recommended keeping an eye on their passage through Parliament. They effectively prepare the ground for major construction projects, such as the building of a third runway and construction of a sixth terminal at Heathrow airport.

Well, I was reminded of this in today’s excellent Guardian article by Andrew Martin. It’s great to see national newspapers covering this story ‘stitch-up’. Indeed, Andrew Martin sums up pretty well the experiences of many keen residents who have studied the consultation documents in order to figure out how best to respond to the Department for Transport’s Open Public Consultation on Adding capacity at Heathrow airport. (It has to be said that these eager types must be a fraction of one percent of the communities affected. Most people just shrug and let Government trample over their lives and wake up one day wondering what went wrong, too late.)

Yes, my family is going to the rally at Westminster on Monday 25th February, and we hope to see you there! I’ve written to my MP to let him know I would like to lobby him in the Houses of Parliament that evening, too. There is every reason in the world to turn up and show your opposition to Heathrow expansion.

Here’s the article that may, at least, help my American friends understand what we are up against:

After extensive consultation, we’ll be doing as we please

The dialogue with residents over Heathrow expansion is true to form: it’s a stitch-up of colossal proportions

Andrew Martin

Thursday 21 February 2008

Consultations have been a major feature of the Blair-Brown years. They are associated with Tony Blair’s “big conversation” and his “big tent”. But cynics argue that they occur so the government can preface difficult policy announcements with the soothing words:

“After extensive consultation …”

There are currently 500 consultations annually, and reductio ad absurdum was arrived at last year when the government published a document called Effective Consultation, which was a consultation on consultations. The public response to it revealed that “consultation fatigue” may be setting in; respondents also fretted that the questions in consultations were too technical, or just irrelevant, and that the answers in any case were ignored. This latter suspicion was expressed by the American humorist Ambrose Bierce who, in his Devil’s Dictionary, defined “consult” as:

“to seek another’s approval for a course of action already decided upon”.

Which brings us to the case of a major consultation that ends next week – that over plans to build a third runway and expand Heathrow airport. Both Gordon Brown and his transport secretary Ruth Kelly have made clear their enthusiasm. Meanwhile, in a series of Department for Transport “roadshows”, people who live near the airport have been asked what they think. Well, sort of.

The roadshow I attended was held at a Holiday Inn in west London. Among the maps of aircraft flight paths and listening posts for the sampling of aircraft noise were racks containing the chunky consultation document, Adding Capacity at Heathrow. This has been sent to the quarter of a million people living closest to the airport, and comes with a response form asking questions.

On entering the consultation room I saw a man – a real live member of the public – reading one of the questions, and he was frowning. “Hold on,” he said. “This asks ‘To what extent do you agree with the proposal that a third runway at Heathrow, if built, should be supported by associated passenger terminal facilities?'” He looked up, thinking hard. “But I don’t want a third runway at Heathrow,” he said.

Rather sadistically I asked him how he liked another of the questions: “To what extent do you agree or disagree that a third runway can be added within the air quality limits set out in the white paper, without further measures?” I pointed out the part of the consultation document designed to help him answer this question, immediately locating a typical passage: “Insofar as there are remaining uncertainties inherent in modelling, the intensity of NOX emissions may be greater or lesser than predicted, but the pattern of NO2 concentrations is not likely to be significantly different.” The man looked up again. “Hold on …” he said.

“It is a very difficult consultation,” confided one of the extremely courteous civil servants on hand to answer questions. “It’s very technical.”

I put it to him that it didn’t have to be, that the government could just have asked: “Do you support the building of a third runway at Heathrow airport?” He averred that this had already been consulted upon, and mentioned the consultation that preceded the publication of the white paper of 2003, which blithely envisaged a doubling of aviation over the next 25 years. In that consultation, the general idea of expanding airport capacity was run past people from all over south-east England in a general sort of way. “And did people say yes?” I asked the civil servant. “Well,” he said, “there were a range of responses.”

There have been many consultations over the expansion of aviation, all more or less notorious to those living under the flight paths – one of them achieved the distinction of being called “materially misleading” in the high court. I put it to my civil servant that consultations are particularly hollow in the case of aviation. “Well, consultations must stem from a policy base,” he replied.

The policy base here is that Gordon Brown not only wants a third runway, he also wants to suspend runway alternation, whereby planes land at one of the two existing runways until 3pm one week, after 3pm the next. That way, people living on the close approaches are given relief from the foul racket – a half life, you might say. Of course, local people are not being asked whether they favour this suspension, or the building of a third runway, for the very good reason that they would all say no.

Another big recent consultation concerned changes to the planning laws now going through parliament. Here too the ghost of Ambrose Bierce hovers: it is widely believed among those consulted that the bill was drafted before their responses were analysed. The bill was inspired by the public inquiry into Heathrow terminal five, which lasted five years – too long, to the government’s mind. The terminal, which opens next month, was authorised by that inquiry on condition it is the final expansion of Heathrow, a condition accepted by the government and now rather forgotten about. The bill severely curtails the right to object to planning applications, and it will become law before the British Airports Authority submits its application to build a third runway.

Yes, it’s a stitch-up of colossal proportions. The way is being cleared for BAA, a Spanish-owned private company, to displace thousands of people; to flatten the historic village of Sipson (no consultation roadshow has been held there, owing to lack of a “suitable location”) – all in order to build a runway generating annual carbon emissions equivalent to those of Kenya.

At the helm of the huge coalition mustering against this is Hacan (the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise) Clearskies, whose chairman, John Stewart, has advised respondents to ignore the consultation questions: “But where it says General Comments write ‘I oppose all further expansion at Heathrow.'” This, he adds, is the line in the sand.

A rally against Heathrow expansion will be held at Westminster Central Hall on Monday 25th February at 7pm.

· Andrew Martin’s novel Death on a Branch Line will be published in June
andrew.jmartin@virgin.net

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