Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Airport Watch Conference, ULU 18th June

This weekend I went to represent Birmingham FoE at the Airport Watch conference and discovered that there has been a lot of evidence gathered both on the environmental, but also the economic effects that aviation is having on this country.

The day was divided into 3 parts: in the morning session we had presentations on the different areas that will be covered in the scoping document on aviation which the government is consulting on at the moment. Then, in the afternoon session we were able to question civil servants from the DfT who are working on this on the process on how it will work. For the final session, we had the minister for aviation, Theresa Villiers, who spoke on the government's attitude on various aspects of what we had been talking about through the day. This was the first time a minister had attended a gathering of aviation campaigners and her presence was a welcome sign.

Generally, quite a positive thread ran through the day's presentations, especially from the two chairs, John Stewart of HACAN and Airport Watch and Tim Johnson of AEF. The main reason for their positivity seems to be the government's very different tone to the previous administration and the presence of Theresa Villiers as minister, who was one of the main people within the conservative party pushing for abandoning the 3rd runway at Heathrow.

In a way, it was a shame that the presentations were given in the morning when the speakers were just preaching to the converted (the attendees from airport watch and related groups would have known most of what was said already). The presentations were all very good and showed how well our evidence base is building in order to fight the case of the airports and airlines economic arguments, as well as their technical and environmental ones.

It was heartening that the government has made the consultation so open (in complete contrast to the one on HS2) and that they have deliberately left an appropriate time-frame for people to be able to collect evidence to back up their arguments. There is still a complete imbalance in the financial resources available to pro and anti-aviation campaigners, but we were given assurance that the evidence provided will be scrutinised properly, unlike the evidence given by the aviation industry which formed the basis of the 2003 white paper.

One of the biggest themes of concern to come out of the day was the conflict between the government's localism agenda and the need to tackle aviation and climate change at a national or even international level. I think that Theresa Villiers was left in no doubt that she needed to go away and look at that to ensure that all the work on the aviation framework was not going to be in vain. There was some assurance that issues of national strategic importance will be tackled at a national level, but this does seem to be a contradiction in much of government policy and the dots need to be joined up a lot better in many areas, if we are to be able to tackle environmental problems, particularly the country's climate change targets.

With no economic case for airport expansion, growth incompatible with legally binding CO2 reduction targets and a growing awareness of the blight on local communities in terms of both air pollution and noise are issues that sound alarm bells loud across government. The aviation industry surely has quite a battle to win in order to persuade people that business as usual can continue.

Joe Peacock

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