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Wise words from Paul Francis on the awful consequences of realpolitik and the persistence of dumb ideas. The sudden (re)launch of the estuary airport idea has more to do with Boris’ mayoral election bid and recent unemployment figures than strategic infrastructure planning. And then there is the blind faith that an airport automatically translates into employment and regeneration. These apparently impulsive pronouncements from politicians rarely mention the downsides of aviation, and never touch on the fact that aviation itself does not have a long-term future – when the oil runs out, what use is an airport?
There will be considerable dismay in some quarters that the Prime Minister appears to have agreed that the idea of an airport in the Thames Estuary should be fully investigated. But there ought not to be surprise – even if opponents will throw back at him his declaration more than a year ago that the government had ‘no plans’ to build such an airport. A similar commitment was given to the Rochester and Strood MP Mark Reckless by new transport secretary Justine Greening in precisely the same terms.
But it was George Osborne who paved the way for the idea of examining the scheme in November when he announced the government would ‘explore all the options’ for tackling the problems around aviation capacity. Even so, today’s news will be seen as a U-turn and a politically awkward one given the deep hostility among his own MPs in Kent.
It is worth pointing out that there has never been any likelihood the government itself would ‘build’ an airport – that would be for private investment consortiums.
Some will see it as a shot in the arm for Boris Johnson’s campaign to be re-elected as London Mayor although I’ve never been persuaded that aviation capacity is something that preoccupies London voters as much as issues like tube fares or crime. Politically, Mr Cameron will have to confront the fact that among the county’s Conservative MPs, there is universal opposition. The Conservative controlled Medway Council remains wholly unconvinced – although there have been recent hints that Kent County Council may not be quite as implacably opposed as it once might have been.
He may also be seen as having performed an about-turn and of betraying those who took him at his word that the government was not interested in the idea. Never an ideal position for a PM or for backbenchers who, in some cases, have marginal seats to defend in 2015.
What has changed? Underlying the news appears to be the feeling that aside from addressing the problem of capacity, a new airport would deliver a huge jobs boost and regenerate a part of the south east in a way no other project could conceivably get close to. Perhaps it is no coincidence the news has come out on the day that unemployment figures have shown another rise in both Kent and Medway.
Those arguments will inevitably have to be balanced against the fact that an airport would have huge environmental consequences. One thing is clear from today’s news. Whatever one thinks of the idea, it can no longer be dismissed as ‘pie in the sky.’
Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, January 18 2012