Greasy Pole: Rough Ride On Runway Three

Head and shoulders above the rest is how Chris Grayling emerges in many group photographic images of our mistresses and masters in government. He is outstanding  in ways other than a physical presence because, since he first got into Parliament in 2011 as the Honourable Member for Epsom and Ewell, he has held a generosity of ministerial offices including a spell when the Tories were in opposition as a Front Bench Shadow Minister. His record has given him valuable experience of normalising some controversial matters, to the extent that it seemed natural that he should be Secretary of State for Transport when at the end of October it was confirmed that the dispute over the third runway at Heathrow Airport had been settled. Settled, that is, to the extent that it will be laid down together with all the associated horrors of chaotic terminals and jam-packed roads and atmospheric pollution – and engine noise.


It was a matter of going along with a recommendation by the Airports Commission to develop Heathrow rather than Gatwick Airport, which was hoping to be allowed to have a second runway. Grayling stated the case for Heathrow: ‘The step that government is taking today is truly momentous. I am proud that after years of discussion and delay this government is taking decisive action to secure the UK’s place in the global aviation market – securing jobs and business opportunities for the next decade and beyond’. This news was the worst possible for thousands of people – for example those in Harmondsworth, where  some 700 homes, an ancient church and eight Grade Two listed buildings and a graveyard would disappear under the bulldozers, as would the nearby ancient village of Sipson. And to another, crucial objection Grayling had an answer – if that is the correct term – ready: ‘No airport is able to be silent’, he assured the objectors and others and then, before the gasps of outrage had died away,  ‘but we have studied new supplementary evidence that shows it won’t be quite as noisy as some people seem to think it will be’.


These assurances might have been more effective if they had been voiced by someone with a less turbulent and discouraging past than Grayling. He was appointed to his present job last July; in the past he has held nine others of varying responsibility and the most he has survived in any of them was two years. His first experience of office was as Minister for Employment, from 2010 until 2012, when he was responsible for the supposedly constructive work of the Job Centres. He quickly gained a reputation for his combative style including a reduction in costs by making some 100,000 staff at the Job Centres redundant, with a predictable effect on the benefits of out-of-work people who were condemned by him for ‘being habitually unemployed, generation after generation, living in sink council estates’. He carried this assessment style over into his later job as Lord Chancellor and Minister for Justice  when he laid down that prisoners should be encouraged to remodel themselves away from their ‘something for nothing culture’ and he took steps to stop them receiving books from their families and friends. He also encouraged private companies such as Securicor and G4S to play a greater – and more profitable – part in the supervision of prisoners released early on licence. These achievements were responsible for him being dubbed ‘Failing Grayling’ and made it difficult to understand why he had been appointed to some of the more sensitive posts in government.


But Grayling’s store of Arguments for Survival is unusually deep, enabling him to survive when his rivals have given up. When he was dumped with the responsibility for seeing the Third Runway through to establishment it had been in process, from one side to the other, for a very long time. It was another example of politicians who habitually encourage us to trust them for their talent for crisp clear-headed attitudes but are liable to change their collective minds, often diametrically from one embattled side to the other – at times developing nothing better than a state of chaos. Heathrow was opened as ‘London Airport Heathrow’ in 1946, coming out of the purchase in 1930 of 150 acres of land by an aircraft engineer from the vicar of Harmondsworth. Over the years it repeatedly expanded, with a succession of Terminals until in 2001 the then Labour government was persuaded by a campaign to manage the aerospace congestion by building a further runway. In 2003 Alistair Darling, when he was Minister of Transport, produced a White Paper which effectively set the debate going, confirmed by another White Paper in 2005. This set off a widespread, organised protest movement which objected to the proposal on the grounds of aircraft noise, atmospheric pollution and road traffic congestion – on one occasion making its points with a band of intrepid demonstrators on the roof of Parliament. This did not persuade the Labour government with its Prime Minister Gordon Brown to change its policy.

No Ifs No Buts

That had to wait for 2009 and the future Prime Minister of the coalition government David Cameron who made many people feel a lot better with his famous declaration including the phrase that ‘…the third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead no ifs, no buts’ and after the 2010 election the Lib Dem Nick Clegg was encouraged to try to seduce a few votes, along with all those others who had believed him in the matter of student loans, by agreeing that the whole idea of a Third Runway was dead in the airways. And there was the next Tory Prime Minister Theresa May who in January 2009 intervened  like a seasoned objector on the matter of the Labour government plan to approve the terminal: ‘A third runway will result in thousands of additional flights, increased noise and more pollution for thousands of people. The government’s promises on the environmental impact of this are not worth the paper they are written on’.

We are accustomed to the exposure of politicians in a confusion of their impotence. In the case of the third runway the reasons are readily available. Heathrow is effectively owned by a number of investment funds in countries such as Qatar, Singapore, China while the British Chamber of Commerce expects it to bring £30 billion of ‘economic benefits’ to the UK economy between 2020 and 2080. Aircraft fly, people travel, goods are flown back and forward across the world, influenced by profits or loss – by those ‘economic benefits’. The third runway is not judged on its effects on human welfare but on which side of that equation it operates.


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