Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Airport threat isn't trivial; it is deadly.

The news announced by Boris Johnson over the weekend that he has dropped the £80bn Island Airport proposal does not come as a surprise to me and nor I suspect to key but apparently ‘trivial’ opposition campaigners.

The Mayoral plan has been pretty clear since the original proposal was mooted in 2008 and more importantly not rubbished by David Cameron. This early history is important because as time has progressed plans have become more developed; the tempo for Cameron obfuscation on this from day one has been a long and protracted process; pre-general election he was always able to dither and laugh off Boris Johnson, but now it all looks hollow. It is no surprise we are in an official government consultation on aviation. No one is laughing and not one Medway MP has threatened to resign.

The anger locally isn’t just how we ended up here. A slow, protracted but clear process of Tory movement and a community that has responded to the Tory threats; not trivial but brave. A community angered by how a debate about an Island slipped onto an on-site solution post the General Election; at which it was explicitly stated that proposals on Grain would not be considered to campaigners and at Cameron Direct events. The Conservative Party then appointed Justine Greening - a ‘convenient’ Heathrow opponent - and undertook a u-turn to consider options. The ratchet change on an airport in North Kent is visible to those who have watched this from Boris first mooting in 2007/08. I have always feared the Island solution was only ever to get a debate on aviation in North Kent by pushing a high-cost but unfeasible proposal; when the Grain options first appeared in the ‘Tory’ Sunday paper of choice (Sunday Times) it was shocking insomuch obvious they would do this. The Tories needed a proxy to start an aviation debate; the right wing media aided and abetted.

The 2012 blow-back from Kent (which had local Council elections in May 2013), Liberal Democrat Parliamentary opposition, poor performance of Greening and the political realities of coalition required government to kick this into the long grass; but the threat always remained despite pundits watching Boris Johnson for every whimper and nuance. We know that several core members of the Tory government are in favour; the former guru Hilton and Osborne are key names in support it is alleged. Boris has been a distraction from government moves; a useful distraction.

Tories locally are being disingenuous about how we have ended up here. London Tories think we are trivial perhaps because those in Medway were in abject denial for several years; many thought it wasn’t a serious proposal; and that delay I believe has let down our residents. They could have done more but didn’t.  There is a long history on this blog going back almost five years of how Tories ignored the threat until Labour started a major leaflet drive on the Peninsula. Within a month the tempo of the Tory campaign had changed.

The changing goal-posts were seen by Labour as the threat it was which is why you can go back to 2009/2010 to see questions and motions tabled for action; all ignored or voted against. Labour in 2012 called for an immediate cross-party borough referendum but was rubbished; the idea however remains a strong and reasonable one. The Tories claimed it would lead to a ‘Yes’ outcome despite all polling suggesting a massive majority against a mega-airport. It is now sadly true that the longer the Tories have opposed the tighter the outcome; which is why I am angry for Isle of Grain residents that it was not pursued with haste. The cost argument was never justifiable if the ballot were held on same day as other elections.

From opposing a borough referendum at a time when a clear majority opposed any Estuary Airport, to being outflanked by Conservative-controlled authorities in West London who then took up the idea themselves, and sought and now secured a clear democratic mandate to oppose Heathrow expansion.  Such a terrible idea that we see its widespread use across other local authorities.

The key point for those on Grain is that if the government was to withdraw from Heathrow in 2015 no one can claim it was not at the express wishes of the people who were balloted; meanwhile and crucially Medway sits in a sea of uncertainty. If the government does go ahead with Heathrow the impact is conversely more damaging; a loss of one high-profile MP and angry residents who specifically opposed expansion in a ballot.  The inaction on a verifiable referendum is significantly more damaging then people are aware; the lack of any direct say by people in Medway either way means something in Westminster to those who pull the real decision strings. The ballot on the Peninsula is unverifiable because it was not held in a democratic way.

My real fear is that residents are being let down because Conservatives whose primal fear is to lose in 2015 rather than to protect our towns. The simple truth is that one backbench MP is largely an irrelevance; campaign efforts, though high profile, can be dismissed by government because the vote is not verifiable. Poster campaigns are visible and welcome but only if the outcome is measurable in terms of influence in Westminster. I salute the efforts of Councillors – many Labour colleagues - to work the community on this issue but my overarching fear is that the current engagement strategy from Tories is piecemeal without a mandate from the people we serve across the entire area. This mandate has to be above-and-beyond simply electing a Tory administration in 2011 where the main local issues on the ballot paper were not airport related.

This blog is written for today but in two years time the day of reckoning will come. Should the Estuary Airport be the accepted solution and the people have elected a Conservative majority government then posterity will judge whether more could have been done. Folly to those that vote for the government.

The community on the Grain Peninsula should consider selecting candidates expressly opposed to the Estuary Airport in 2015 and run them against the current Conservative ticket for the Council. Cameron needs to be sent a message that his de-facto Party representatives on the ground will not be rewarded; imagine the message it would send if Conservatives were to win in 2015 in wards where his party has spent years threatening. It would send a message to Number 10.

The stakes could not be higher; the prospect of an airport will change Medway for decades should it happen; the time to act on a ballot is slowly slipping. Medway residents are not a ‘trivial’ concern; it is a time they were given a say.

1 comment:

  1. I would like the add the local council's hypocrisy in partially fighting against the airport on bird population conservation grounds; yet being up in arms when they were denied permission to start work at lodge hill because a large number of the rare nightingale was found to be nesting there. Just food for thought on the possibility of the Tory's real opposition being based on nimby-ism rather then protection of our wildlife, which could ultimately harm our defence against the unelected-in-Kent-and-Medway BoJo's determination to ignore advice and fact, something that all Tories seem to have a great ability to.