The debate over airport expansion in London has rightly concentrated on the plan for a third runway at Heathrow and its potentially damaging environmental consequences. However, for the citizens of east London, a more immediate concern is the noise and nuisance caused by flights into City Airport following Newham council’s decision to give planning permission for an increase of flights from 80,000 to 120,000 a year. So I was pleased to move a motion at last week’s Mayor’s Question Time which called on Boris Johnson to show leadership on the issue by initiating a review of the impact of flights into City Airport. The motion received cross-party support and was passed unanimously by the London Assembly.
The depth of local feeling on this issue was made clear at the Mayor’s “Environment Question Time” event in Ilford in January, where I was on the platform as chair of the London Assembly’s environment committee. During contributions from the floor, speaker after speaker complained about the disturbance suffered by those living under the City Airport flight path. In reply, Boris told the audience that he felt their pain, but unfortunately there was nothing he could do about it. The planning authority in this case was Newham council and he had no powers to intervene.
But Boris’ expressions of regret were the purest hypocrisy. Under his predecessor, there was a clear and robust policy on City Airport expansion. Ken Livingstone’s administration had urged Newham council to reject City Airport’s application for an increase in flights on the grounds of environmental impact and noise. If the council did not agree to this, the Mayor’s position was that the government should call in the application and convene a public inquiry, and that the Government Office for London should prohibit Newham from granting planning permission pending a decision by the Secretary of State.
One of Boris’ early decisions as Mayor was to overturn this policy. In July 2008, in a letter to Newham council, he paid tribute to “the contribution London City Airport makes to London’s world city status, and the benefits the airport offers to the City and Canary Wharf”. In light of that, he continued: “I offer support for the expansion sought by London City Airport…. I shall therefore be writing separately to the Government Office for London, withdrawing earlier objections, and confirming my support for the current proposals.”
So while Boris was bidding for popular support by opposing airport expansion at Heathrow, he was giving it the green light in east London. To cap it all, Doug Oakervee, the architect of the Mayor’s plan for a new airport in the Thames Estuary, has declared himself unavailable to defend that proposal before the environment committee, suggesting that Boris’ fantasy island is dead in the water. The Mayor’s lack of any coherent strategic policy towards airport expansion in London is plain to see.
Published in Tribune, 5 March 2010