The coalition agreement states that a third runway at Heathrow is off the aviation policy menu. David Cameron now says he’s not blind to the need for airport expansion in the South East. Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith threatens to stand down if the Tories support a third runway at Heathrow. Boris Johnson says the third runway is back on the menu of options. Environment campaigners say the economic and environmental case for a third runway has long been dead.
It’s no wonder that the public politics of aviation is so confused.The debate on aviation policy has long been bitter and polarised. It’s time to take the politics out of the debate.
Earlier this year the Fabian Society took some of the questions at the heart of the aviation debate to members of the public. Existing research had shown a contradiction: a public in love with flying whilst also concerned about the climate impacts of their behaviour.
18 hours of focus groups across England with a diversity of ages and socio economic backgrounds attempted to discover how people deliberate around this contradiction. The results show that mainly, they don’t. People want to fly and those who don’t currently wish to do so in future. But they are also concerned about the economic and climate impacts of aviation policy. When presented with a menu of options for addressing the environmental impacts of flying, flying less was dismissed by all focus groups.
When it comes to the environment, the public want the government to take the lead. The public want their cake, they want to eat it but they want the government to make sure it’s baked in a way that doesn’t harm the planet.
One of the strongest findings to emerge from this work was the near universal disapproval of the way that politicians handle questions of airport capacity. When asked what they thought motivated politicians’ views on aviation, many participants expressed a view that their opinions were calculated in order to maximise electoral advantage.
Airport capacity in the South East looks set to dominate the aviation debate for the rest of this parliament. One of the strongest lessons from our research is that if we are to move beyond the controversy of a polarised debate, the Government should aim to take the politics out of this debate.This could be done by establishing an independent cross-party commission. This could draw upon academics, industry and NGOs in order to develop a robust evidence base and one that can form the basis of a consensus. The Beecroft report was an example of how not to build consensus in an area of polarised debate. Aviation policy presents an opportunity to get it right.
Labour knows only too well the toxicity of the aviation debate and has been right to repeatedly call for cross-party consensus. The important idea behind taking the short-term party politics out of the aviation debate is to make space for a different kind of politics. A politics that demonstrates an ability to think and plan for the long-term. Politics needs to demonstrate that it can be focused on 2050 and not just 2015.
There is no doubting the magnitude of that task. Some deny its feasibility all together. The Government would be wise to reach out and not go it alone in navigating this path. Aerospace is a sector in which the UK has traditionally done very well. But if we are to meet the aspirations of those wanting to fly more, the level of investment in decarbonising across the economy as well as in aerospace will have to be increased substantially. We desperately need an aviation policy and a government that recognises this. Right now we have neither.
Natan Doron is the author of a Fabian Society pamphlet “Everyone on Board”, you can read it here.