Wednesday night’s vote in the Commons on the third runway was a showcase of Parliamentary impotence. The Tories craftily put down for their Motion the verbatim text of an Early Day Motion calling for a rethink on the third runway, which had been tabled by a Labour Member, John Grogan, and signed by 167 MPs, including 57 Labour MPs. If all the Tories and Lib Dems and smaller parties had held firm and all the Labour signatories had voted in accordance with the EDM they had signed, the Government would have been defeated. But none of these things happened, and the Government won by 19.
A number of Tories disagreed with their Front Bench policy on Heathrow and abstained or even supported the Government. Some members of the smaller parties were either absent or, coming from the more distant parts of the UK, wanted to see Heathrow facilities expanded. Several Labour Members would not vote for a Tory Motion which they saw as opportunistic. In the end 28 Labour Members rebelled, half the original 57.
The handling of this whole issue is now regarded as a debacle, but not one that Parliament has been able to correct. The Department of Transport’s original Heathrow Consultation document was widely seen as flawed, with greatly exaggerated claims about the business advantages of the third runway and the number of jobs likely to be created, and with figures on the environmental impacts re-engineered to fit the EU pollution limits. The Government effectively took the decision to go ahead years ago, and the consultation just gave useful procedural cover. Parliament was denied a vote by the Government on the grounds that planning decisions were not a matter for Parliament, even though Heathrow expansion is a matter of unique national strategic importance. When finally a vote was secured via an Opposition-led debate, all the usual inter-party shenanigans kicked in, with heavy whipping on the Government side to warn off waverers from supporting a ‘Tory’ Motion. The Government overwhelmingly lost the argument in the debate, but through its activities outside the chamber won the vote.
Nor is the future any clearer. Boris Johnson may take legal action to secure a judicial review. Tory policy is to block the runway and build a high-speed rail line to the North instead, but there are divisions within their ranks which make a Tory Government’s stance uncertain. An alternative site for a new airport in the Thames Estuary has been put on ice for the moment, but could still be resuscitated. The EU could still intervene to halt the runway if pollution levels, particularly of nitrogen oxide, cannot be brought down to mandatory EU levels. And under the recently passed new Planning Act the final decision to go ahead awaits the formation of a new Infrastructure Planning Commission, which has not yet been appointed and will be guided by a new National Policy Statement on aviation which has not yet been written. There is all still to play for!
This article first appeared in the Guardian at Commentisfree on 29 January 2009.