Why have government agencies been paying to increase the number of flights?
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 7th July 2009
Here’s an odd thing. Air travel to and from the United Kingdom has plummeted. Several small airlines have gone bust; British Airways has deployed its landing gear. In some respects, according to the industry, this descent could be permanent. Yet the government is still planning to double the capacity of our airports by 2030.
Between the first quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009, the number of people using airports in the UK fell by 6.4 million, or 13%(1). Convinced that its previous estimates for the growth of demand were wrong, the airport operator BAA has delayed its plans for a second runway at Stansted(2). British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair are demanding that BAA reduce the £900m it wanted to spend on upgrading Gatwick, because the business case is now “unproven”(3).
After we had finished filming our interview, broadcast by the Guardian in January(4), the head of easyJet, Andy Harrison, told me that there was no point in expanding airports outside the south-east because the demand wouldn’t materialise. According to the chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, “Business habits are changing and corporate travel budgets have been slashed. Video conferencing is now a stronger competitor.”(5) Companies have finally twigged that hoisting 80kg of human 10,000 metres into the air whenever you want to have a conversation is a waste of time and money.
Yet the government’s projections have scarcely changed. In December 2006, before the industry’s crisis began, it predicted that demand would double by 2030, to 465m passengers a year(6). Its latest forecast, published in January 2009, downgrades this estimate by 2% – to 455m(7). Its graph shows a modest decline in the rate of growth for a couple of years, after which the steep rise resumes(8).
Even when this graph was published it was wrong: passenger numbers were already dropping rather than growing more slowly. Now it looks ridiculous. Yet the government refuses to change course. Just as the Chancellor of the Exchequer issues ever more fantastical economic forecasts, so the Department for Transport sticks to its flight path over the cuckoo’s nest. It still insists that airports produce master plans to accommodate growth that the industry regards as pure fantasy. This is a government in denial.
Now here’s an even odder thing. For years campaigners have said that the government should intervene to discourage the growth in flying. More flights means more misery for the people living underneath. It also means more global warming. In 2007, before the airline crisis began, air transport turnover (including freight) in the UK was £20bn(9). Aviation accounted for 0.78% of total business turnover(10), a smaller proportion than the machinery rental sector(11). Yet it produced 13% of the United Kingdom’s greenhouse gas emissions(12). The case for impeding further growth seemed strong.
Ministers responded that you can’t buck the market: it would be wrong for government to interfere. So here’s the kicker. I’ve just received the last response to the information requests my researcher, Ketty Dean, has been making about airport policy. Our research shows that over the past ten years government agencies have spent £80m on helping private enterprise to increase the number of flights.
Airports in the UK are – or are supposed to be – commercial operations. Airport companies build them then recoup their money by leasing space and landing rights to carriers and renting out pitches for shops. Until we had completed this research, government policy looked wrong but consistent: the free market was being allowed to let rip, regardless of the environmental consequences. Now we know that the government has intervened to accelerate this growth.
Of the £80m, £17m has been spent by bodies controlled by the national assemblies. Scottish Enterprise has spent £8m on developing air routes between Scottish airports and English or European cities, and on subsidies and grants to British Airways, Ryanair, Loganair and BAA. Invest Northern Ireland has spent £3m on developing new air routes. The Welsh Assembly Government has paid £6m to construct and run a new airport terminal, subsidise the Scottish company Highland Airways, give the airlines discounts for airport charges and market flights from Cardiff to Paris and Barcelona.
These payments are unwarranted, outrageous, disgraceful. The devolved governments are spending our sparse discretionary funds on wrecking the environment and subsidising the shopping trips, holidays and second homes of the middle classes (who take the majority of flights). But at least, in the three smaller nations, we can vote the idiots who approved these grants out of office. Our national agencies, though run by corporate bureaucrats, are directly accountable to the national parliaments. The English have no such luck.
The remaining £63m has been spent by the English regional development agencies (RDAs). All nine of them have been wasting public money on supporting the aviation industry. The Guardian has posted the full spreadsheet on its website(13), but here are a few highlights. One North East has spent £11m on new routes and land to help airports expand. The North West Regional Development Agency has coughed up £12m for baggage handling, aircraft parking and marketing. Yorkshire Forward has spent £16m, mostly on refurbishing two hangars at Robin Hood airport. The South West Regional Development Agency has spent £19m on extending the airport terminals at Bristol and Bournemouth, aircraft parking at Exeter and airport works at Plymouth and Newquay. In all cases it has encouraged people to fly when they might otherwise have taken the train.
What can you do about it? Next to nothing. With the exception of the London development agency (a fairly modest spender), the RDAs are subject to no direct democratic scrutiny. They are nominally accountable to unelected regional chambers. From next year these will be replaced by local authority leaders’ boards(14). In principle this is a form of photocopy democracy: an elected body appoints a leader, who joins a committee to oversee another committee. Democracy becomes fainter and greyer with every transfer of power. But it’s not even this good. The government has decided that the RDAs and the leaders’ boards will have joint responsibility for producing regional strategies and monitoring their delivery(15), which means that the development agencies set their own terms of reference and assess their own performance. There are nine regional ministers in central government, but they are not charged with holding the development agencies to account(16). The RDAs (except London’s) are directly answerable to no one.
All nine of them are chaired by corporate executives, three of whom were previously senior officials at the big business lobby group the Confederation of British Industry(17). Whatever their official purpose (promoting regeneration and sustainable development, raising skills), without proper oversight the RDAs have turned into pork distribution offices, handing out lavish grants to undeserving causes.
This is what happens when the government ducks the issue of English democracy. The only nation in the UK without a parliament, England is now run by a new class of plenipotentiary: unelected, unaccountable, known to big business, not the electorate. You’ve just seen the result, but how do you mobilise against it?
6. Department for Transport, December 2006. The Future of Air Transport Progress Report, para 4.11. http://www.dft.gov.uk/about/strategy/whitepapers/air/aviationprogressreportsection/aviationprogressreport
7. Department for Transport, January 2009. UK Air Passenger Demand and CO2 Forecasts, para 1.7. http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/aviation/atf/co2forecasts09/co2forecasts09.pdf
8. ibid, Figure 1.2.
15. DCLG and BERR, 25th November 2008. Prosperous Places: taking forward the review of sub-national economic development and regeneration: the Government response to public consultation, page 15. http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/citiesandregions/pdf/1073344.pdf
16. Lucinda Maer, 26th June 2009. Regional Accountability at Westminster, page 8. House of Commons Library. http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-04411.pdf