The ProLondon Conference took place on Saturday 19 February at the Congress Centre on Great Russell Street. The meeting brought together Labour supporters and others opposed to Tory/Coalition policies in London – basically, anyone who is anti-cuts and/or wants to see Ken Livingstone back on the mayoral throne.
This is the first of three posts reporting conference sessions that were particularly relevant to London. Naturally, all sessions were biased against the current administrations in Whitehall and City Hall, and this should be borne in mind when reading what follows. Comments and criticisms from the other side of the debate are more than welcome in the comments section, and we've provided our own views at the bottom.
The first discussion covers recent moves to expand Heathrow (blocked) and City Airport (successful), what the future might hold for aviation in London, and the stance Ken Livingstone might take to offer clear and sensible policy alternatives to those of his rivals.
Anne-Marie Griffin, Chair of Fight the Flights (Lobby group against expansion of City Airport.
Murad Qureshi AM, Labour member of the London Assembly
Christine Taylor, NoTRAG (No Third Runway Action Group)
CHAIR: John Stuart, HACAN (anti-Heathrow-expansion lobby group)
John Stuart set the scene. In the past year, the Coalition government has scrapped plans to build a third runway at Heathrow, yet City Airport has been allowed to increase flights by 50%. While Boris Johnson was against Heathrow, his views on City's expansion and many other aviation issues are unclear. His most talked about plan is to build a second 'hub' in the South-East, arguing for a Thames Estuary site colloquially known as 'Boris Island'.
For a variety of environmental, business and financial reasons that seems unlikely. In any case, Stuart argued that London already has more passenger capacity than any other city in the world and doesn't need any more. Ken could differentiate himself from his rivals by taking such a stance, thus gaining the green vote, as well as that of people blighted by aircraft noise and pollution.
Other panellists outlined options that would increase capacity without building runways or overstacking airports near residential areas. Murad Qureshi AM asserted that Stansted typically operates at only 60% capacity, and might take some of the surplus. Meanwhile, the proposed high-speed rail link could take some of the burden to Birmingham Airport, which has plenty of spare capacity. Increasing passenger places may assuage rising demand, but does nothing to counter the environmental objections to more flights.
Christine Taylor's family have lived in Sipson (the village threatened by expansion of Heathrow) for decades. She provided an update on local life since the runway plans were overturned. There is no mood of celebration. Plans for expanding into this area have been hovering around since the 1940s. The recent kibosh is assumed by everyone as temporary. Indeed, the area continues to suffer the 'blight' of the failed development. She accused BAA, which owns and operates Heathrow, of stealthily knocking back the protest base by acquiring homes through Property Market Support Bonds and selling them on to landlords who buy-to-rent. The local population is thus more transient and easier to displace at a later date. Many properties are already empty, in turn leaving small businesses who support the diminishing community on the brink of collapse. More here.
Over on the eastern side of London, City Airport's newly embiggened capacity has angered the neighbours, as Anne-Marie Griffin outlined. As well as the obvious concerns about noise and pollution levels, Griffin outlined a number of financial black marks against the privately operated facility. She claimed the airport draws £5.5 million from the public purse each year on security costs alone (essentially, the Metropolitan Police). On the plus side, it did provide £2 million towards the cost of the Woolwich DLR extension, but this contribution pales beside the community reinvestment by, for example, Excel.
The Q&A session raised further ideas. Why not put a congestion charge around Heathrow, to at least cut the traffic on surrounding roads? Bad move, thought Christine Taylor. Such a charge would further penalise those who live around the airport (as well, presumably, as the firms who must truck in Heathrow's consumables). Another idea was to offer free train travel to Heathrow employees (who typically live some distance from the airport), thus cajoling them onto public transport and off the roads.
This debate was always going to be one-sided, but it also felt blinkered. Two of the panellists said that expansions profited business at the expense of London's residents. The flipside was not explored in any depth. Residents also reap advantages from increased capacity, such as cheap holiday flights and imports of foreign goods. To cut down on flight numbers, we might also look to change our own behaviours rather than pinning the blame solely on international business flights. That'd be a brave position for a mayoral candidate to take, but this is not a problem with any easy solutions.
And how come no one used the words 'Gatwick' or 'Luton' in the entire hour and a half?