No Third Runway! Downing Street Protest Takes Resistance to Brown’s Front Door

February 20, 2009

Yesterday saw the gathering of around 200 to 250 demonstrators outside Downing Street in protest against the government’s decision to press on with construction of a third runway at Heathrow Airport. I was one of them, as was Labour MP John McDonnell, activists from the Campaign Against Climate Change, Greenpeace, the Green Party and groups based in areas around Heathrow such as HACAN, many of whose homes stand to be bulldozed if the runway goes ahead.

That’s still up in the air, so to speak, as a judicial review against the decision has been tabled, and a huge range of opponents to the scheme have surfaced – from the Tories, to Lib Dems, from Boris Johson to Bob Ayling (ex Chief Executive of British Airways). In fact, the government is extremely isolated on this issue. Only extremely cosy relations between airport operator BAA (owned by Spanish group Ferrovial) and the Department of Transport [see details here, and here] and a revolving door policy between the government and BAA has pushed the plans forward.

But such links have been effective, and have led to an extremely unpopular policy being imposed upon the nation (and large sections of the business world). That policy will mean that greenhouse gas emissions from aviation will soar, forming between a quarter and a third of the UK’s output by 2050. It will, effectively, plough a 747 through any hopes of reducing carbon emissions by 90 percent in the same time scale.

Furthermore, as BA’s Bob Ayling has maintained, the economic case for a third runway is meagre. Heathrow is already on track to becoming a transit hub, servicing transatlantic visitors to Europe and vice versa. Such flights have leapt in frequency over the past 20 years, and now form around a third of Heathrow’s traffic load (from around 10 percent in 1990). These flights add little or nothing to the UK economy, as their human cargo spend little time exploring the country. Ayling is also pessimistic about Heathrow’s chances of challenging other European hubs, given its poor starting base.

Recent research from Oxford University has challenged the notion that expanding Heathrow is good for the nation. As Prof David Bannister and Dr Moshe Givoni have found, “Regional airports are currently more likely to use overseas hubs, than Heathrow. For instance, Amsterdam serves 21 regional airports in the UK, using mainly foreign airlines” meaning that “government claims that Heathrow’s third runway will bring economic benefits to the whole of the UK ring somewhat hollow.”

Meanwhile, “an analysis of recent airlines’ flight patterns, and research into other European airports and air-rail substitution” shows that “a third runway will not solve the capacity problem and the airport will therefore continue to focus on the most profitable flights at the expense of the domestic short-haul.”

Givoni concludes that expanding Heathrow is of little benefit to ordinary Britons, and will not significantly enhance their international mobility. He isolates two major causes behind the plans, neither of which include helping out British airline passengers. Firstly, he cites “the recent EU-US ‘open sky’ agreement, which draws more airlines to the lucrative trans-Atlantic routes, with the US expected to take up significant new capacity at Heathrow.”

Secondly, Givoni backs up Ayling, judging that “a key priority for the government is that Heathrow is a transfer airport.” In his view this means that, “Paradoxically, the provision of facilities for transfer passengers would reduce airport and runway capacity at Heathrow even further.”

The government has also been accused of using “fantasy economics” to embroider its case for the runway. As the New Economics Foundation has pointed out, the government’s figures on the projected cost of the eventual emissions produced by the expansion comes out at £2.8 billion. Yet this figure fails to take into account the true cost of aviation-derived emissions. Emissions generated at high altitude can have 5 times the effect that they do at ground-level. The cost should therefore be revised upwards towards the region of between £8 and £20 billion.

The NEF also points out that while expansion is justified by reducing the cost of travel, this will inevitably prove elusive. As Andrew Simms puts it, “You are talking about a highly carbon-intensive piece of infrastructure that might be finished at exactly the moment when global oil production is collapsing and its price is rocketing.”

The government bases its predictions on an oil price lying between £53 and £64 per barrel. As oil supplies peak and dwindle, we have to expect far higher price spikes – making any prediction of reduced costs extremely implausible.

So given all of that, there were, and remain, many strong reasons to brave the February cold and stand around listening to speakers, chanting and carousing opposite the Prime Minister’s offices. As it turned out, the protest was well attended and vibrant, with a diverse mixture of attendees.

This contrasted markedly with a “counter-demonstration” organized just a few yards down the road, by a motley crew calling themselves the “modern movement.” As this Indymedia posting suggests, the Modern Movement sets out to advocate the expansion of Heathrow so as to promote “freedom of the skies for all.” It’s stance on climate change is unorthodox, i.e., that it either isn’t happening or doesn’t matter. One of the placards at their demo read “down with icecaps” – leading to suggestions that the group lacked seriousness.

Whether they really believe their creed or not, the counter-protest drew at most 30 to 40 people, who sought to amplify their “message” via a coterie of photographers and videographers. Presumably, their efforts will be circulated throughout the websites associated with Spiked Magazine and the Institute of Ideas, from which the Modern Movement springs. Look out for reports from the demo on Climate Resistance, Culture Wars and the Modern Movement’s own site, all lending the group a spurious weight.

Yet their message is extremely lightweight. As their manifesto states “We stand for real, long-term investment. Better transport links benefit the UK and the world economy.”

But expansion of Heathrow will not benefit the UK. Its benefits will be restricted to the south-east and will, even then, be minimal. The true beneficiaries will be BAA and transtlantic travellers, not the ordinary Briton. The idea that expanding transfer slots at Heathrow will benefit the consumer in Britain is laughable. As is the assertion that expanding Heathrow is a good “long-term investment” (which the Modern Movement presumably believes).

It is extremely short term. The long-term consequences are rising emissions and runaway climate change, raised noise pollution, diminished air quality, more congestion further down the line (and on local roads). A far better long-term investment would be in a wholly electrified national railway network which serves all of the UK’s regions cheaply and quickly.

I don’t want to waste a great deal of time pouring over the ideological content of the Modern Movement. Suffice to say that it is part of the post-marxist libertarian current which arose from Living Marxism in the 1980s and has produced gems like the atrocious Great Global Warming Swindle and Spiked Magazine. Ex-marxists have become professional contrarians, tireless self-promoters, faux-libertarians (some of the MM members, for example, are great fans of the Peoples Republic of China).

The Institute of Ideas has no problems with accepting corporate money to sponsor its events and, although there is no suggestion that the Modern Movement has taken money to promote the immediate interests of BAA, their thrust is certainly congenial to big business. Well, one Spanish owned (extremely inefficient and bullying) big business, in any case.

But we’ll let that rest. The truth is that the Downing Street protest last night brought a serious, committed group of activists to the doors of power and made a great statement of resistance to an extremely destructive policy. It’s a great example of the Campaign Against Climate Change working closely with other groups to achieve amplified results, and it bodes well for future actions dealing with airport expansion and beyond.


[It’s stance on climate change is unorthodox, i.e., that it either isn’t happening or doesn’t matter. One of the placards at their demo read “down with icecaps” – leading to suggestions that the group lacked seriousness.]

Or,  accusations that I lack an irony chip. Plane Stupid activists infiltrated the Modern Movement demo, with some pretty nifty placards, including “down with icecaps” and “99 percent of scientists can be wrong.”

Photos here

That’s only marginally sillier than “Flying for all: We want to live in the modern world” which, as far as I can tell, was a genuine slogan.


One Response to “No Third Runway! Downing Street Protest Takes Resistance to Brown’s Front Door”

  1. […] As we saw outside Downing Street on Thursday night, Hartshorn is right. Building relationships between “hardcore green activists” and “middle class campaigners” is crucial and effective in forcing the pace in key campaigns such as Heathrow expansion and Kingsnorth. The potential is massive. As Hartshorn concludes, “All you’ve got to do then is link in with the environmentalists, and look at the oil companies. They’re seen to be turning over billions of pounds profit in issues that are seen to be against the environment.” Posted by szamko Filed in Uncategorized […]

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