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A U-turn too far!

Natalie Bennett

18th December 2013

The UK Government's U-turn on new airport capacity in England defies all logic, argues Natalie Bennett. We must end our obsession with 'high speed projects' and invest in low-speed sustainable transport.

Air is a thoroughly unpleasant way to travel. It's not surprising that companies - big and small - are moving away from it.

We've seen some 'good' U-turns from this government - on plain packaging for cigarettes, on a charge on single-use plastic bags, on the pasty tax - even if they often seem to have been dragged around by the sheer illogic and indefensibility of their original positions.

But the latest U-turn, on airport expansion, in contract, flies in the face of logic, the facts, and the economics.

Fact one: aviation accounts for 13% of our greenhouse gas emissions now. We cannot expand it and stay within our legally binding carbon targets.

Fact two: for all of the expensive billboard advertising purchased, so far as I've seen, just for Westminster Tube station, aviation is not one of the pillars of the British economy. It's out 26th-largest industry, half the size of the computer industry - and it costs us dear. 

The New Economics Foundation has calculated that a third runway at Heathrow, when the externalised costs that the airport wouldn't pay - noise, pollution, disruption - are added in, would cost us £5bn. And the industry already enjoys massive effective subsidies from the facts that it doesn't pay tax on its aviation fuel, and air travel is zero-rated for VAT. 

Additionally, it's a money siphon - pulling money away from Britain. It flies away a net £17bn each year in expenditure - based on a comparison of what British travellers spend abroad versus what foreign travellers spend here.

Fact three: Air is - let's face it - a thoroughly unpleasant way to travel. It's not surprising that companies big and small are moving away from it.

Think of the misery of the executive, dragged from her bed before dawn, while her children are asleep, for long, miserable hours in security queues and endless waits, for a short meeting in a foreign land, arriving home, exhausted and frazzled to find her children already asleep.

Contrast that to the fresh as a daisy video-conferencer, who gets both the school run and bedtime stories, with a painless digital interaction from the office in between.

The WWF-UK reports that in just two years, it worked with a range of major British companies, including Lloyds, BSkyB and Marks & Spencer's, to cut their flights by an average of 41%, saving £2.4 million, and no doubt 

And you'd have to say that this decision also flies in the face of the politics, in the views of the British people. Hundreds of thousands whose lives are already negatively affected by aviation have been subjected to what Tory MP Zac Goldsmith has described as an "off-the-scale" betrayal.

Remaining Lib Dem supporters and members will be astonished that Nick Clegg is, as the Evening Standard put it, "refusing to rule out seeking to persuade his party to change its policy against all airport expansion in the south East".

Well I suppose if they've U-turned on all of the others … 

We do need massive transport investment in Britain - but not in high-speed projects like new airport runways and the rich-person's London-centric HS2 - but in local and inter- and intra-regional transport.

And there's scores of 'low speed projects' up and down the country that need investment, electrification, all of which could help regional economic development, rather than increase the already vastly unhealthy concentration on London and the South East.

We also need to invest in walking and cycling, the methods of active transport that should get people around local communities that we should be aiming to ensure meet all of their employment, education and leisure needs.

But to put that into a framework of sensible decision making, making choices about what to make investment in, we'd need a transport plan for England.

Scotland and Wales have them - but don't stand at the station waiting for this government's. Since it was due 16 months ago, you would now be very cold, hungry and frustrated.

 


 

Natalie Bennett is Leader of the Green Party of England & Wales.

 

 

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