The most interesting thing the Tories have said today is not, of course, George Osborne’s council tax “freeze”, but Theresa Villiers’s suggestion that they are now opposed to Heathrow’s third runway. I know I should be partisan about this, but I genuinely want to congratulate them on this announcement, not least because certain Tories seem to be in denial about it.
It’s been a long time coming, but on a subject as urgent as this, any conversion is welcome. One might think this means that the Tories have accepted that endless expansion in air travel capacity is not, as so many in the party have argued, simply “necessary” (on the contrary, it has to stop). But don’t be so sure about that. Instead, they are justifying the decision with a two pronged approach:
Firstly, to present a high-speed rail link as in some way an alternative to it. This is, as BAA have pointed out (amongst other squeals of pain from the usual “money must come before planet” brigade), a false choice:
“The total number of flights to Manchester and Leeds/Bradford is only 13,356 or less than 3% of Heathrow’s total flights. Even if every flight from Manchester and Leeds/Bradford were replaced by a new high-speed rail line then Heathrow would still be operating at 97% of capacity.”
Of course, I don’t agree with the conclusion that BAA draw from this (that we still need more air capacity). Rather, I would say that the point to take away from this is that green politicians are, sooner or later, going to have to get away from the soft lie that all our current travel can be replaced with a greener alternative that is in no way less convenient. Quite simply, eventually some brave soul is going to have to tell Britain’s (and the rest of the world’s) flyers that it’s no good, they just can’t feel entitled to go jetting off round the world as often as they like. Cameron sailed close to this with his suggestion last year of a “green air-miles allowance” of one short-haul flight a year per person before punitive taxes kicked in. That, like much of the environmental stuff Cameron’s early rebranding exercise floated, seems to have been dropped six months later.
Secondly, the chatter about a possible Boris Island continues, putting completely to rest the idea that this might actually be a good policy shift from a climate change point of view. On the contrary, if both of these prongs went ahead, they would probably see a greater expansion in greenhouse gas emissions than would be the case with a third runway at Heathrow and no high speed rail link. Of course, even the latter is not desriable.
So, once again, it is left to the Lib Dems to make the green case, since the Labour government have already leapt in on the side of the airport and airline operators, with this choice quote from Ruth Kelly (still here, Ruth?):
“These proposals are politically opportunistic, economically illiterate and hugely damaging to Britain’s national interests. The Tories are posing a false choice – we need both more capacity in Britain’s airports and on our main rail lines.”
Apparently, unchecked growth in greenhouse emissions from the aviation sector are “in Britain’s national interest”. Well it would explain a lot.