This is the story of the watchdog who barked in the night to warn its owner of impending danger – to no avail. Its master had gone deaf, the result of a long-term illness. As a consequence, disaster overtook one and all. The watchdog in this case was the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) and its master – you must have guessed by now – was the terminally-ill New Labour government.
In January 2006, the SDC was officially made the government’s “independent watchdog” and reports to the Prime Minister. Its role includes “scrutinising and reporting on government’s performance on sustainable development”. The SDC’s board of commissioners is chaired by the eminent environmentalist Jonathon Porritt.
This week, the SDC barked furiously about the government’s plans for expanding UK airports, especially at Heathrow – where there are fiercely opposed plans for a new runway – and at Stansted. A report by the SDC and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said that the real costs and implications of the proposed growth were not properly understood. They concluded that so much fundamental data is disputed that an independent inquiry is needed to sort it out.
For example, Treasury analysis estimates future increases in economic activity through expanded aviation – but excludes any calculation of losses to the UK tourist industry through cheap flights abroad. The impact of aviation's greenhouse gas emissions is not fully understood either. Many experts also warn that improvements in technology cannot keep up with the increase in demand for flying.
Hugh Raven, SDC commissioner, said: "The SDC and IPPR held meetings with the government, the aviation industry, academics, NGOs and citizens' groups over a period of a year. While we expected to find areas of conflict, we were unprepared for the level of fundamental disagreement over the data underpinning the government's whole aviation strategy. Until some basic questions are answered, the UK cannot be in a position to make major decisions about the future of air travel. The government must live up to its commitment to listening to voters' concerns, and ensure we make the best possible decisions for everyone involved."
Seems sound advice to me, whichever way you look at. Here was a chance for the government to get off the hook via that traditional British method of holding another inquiry. John Stewart, who chairs the anti-Heathrow expansion campaign group Hacan Clear Skies, urged ministers to listen and to commission an independent study into the real impact of expansion on noise, air pollution and emissions. “Until that is done, it makes no sense at all to go ahead with this programme of aggressive expansion of aviation,” he insisted.
Hacan is planning a protest march and rally around Heathrow at the end of this month and, judging by the government’s official response, the mood will be justifiably angrier than ever. The government said it had “serious objections” to the report's findings. A statement from the Department for Transport (DfT) said it was "simply wrong to claim that there is a consensus that the evidence base is flawed". The government had conducted a “widespread debate over the last six years” and “deferring a decision in favour of a further three-year debate as this report suggests is not a serious option”.
So there you have it. The watchdog sounded the alarm but no one was listening. Clearly, its bark is worse than its bite. New Labour is adamant that the rules of the global market economy have to be obeyed. Airports must be expanded in order for the British economy to stay “competitive”, whatever the cost in environmental terms. The immediate response to that is to get down to Heathrow on May 31 to join the demonstration against a government that ought to be bought a one-way ticket to somewhere very far away.
AWTW communications editor