Plane Speaking: A response to Brendan O'Neill


The donkey jackets have been quietly retired and the Lenin busts wrapped in newspaper and stored in the bottom draw, while that once unshakable belief in the Hegelian dialectic is nothing more than an embarrassing dinner party anecdote. Now it's all sharp suits and bursting media contacts books.

Welcome to the curious world of Spiked Online, the internet home of the Revolutionary Communist Party, where members of that 80s Marxist sect now espouse free-market ideology while stuffing their Gap jackets with corporate booty.

I have had cause this week to take a closer look at this network of commentators after Spiked editor Brendan O'Neill described me, on Comment is Free, as "deeply conservative and censorious, wishing to hold society back, shut down debate and keep the uppity oiks in their place". The Spiked gang once thought society was held back by bourgeois tendencies. Now, it seems, the fault lies with environmental protesters - particularly those under thirty years of age who think tackling climate change might be, you know, a reasonably good idea.

I wandered into the crosshairs of Spiked's AK-47 after founding a direct action group to tackle the dangerous growth in aviation. Just to put it on the record, I and my friends did not do this because we were convulsed by a desire to force people to live in Hobbit-style grass huts, wear hair shirts, howl at the moon or listen to "One Way" by The Levellers on repeat. (We'll leave the cultural reprogramming to the Revolutionary Communist Party, eh Brendan?) No, we founded the group called Plane Stupid because the world's scientists are warning that the current growth in aviation threatens to destroy what hope we have of averting catastrophic climate change. Indeed, in recent months both Oxford University and the internationally respected Tyndall Centre have warned that if aviation expands as expected, even if Britain decarbonised the rest of its economy by 2050, we still won't even meet the prime minister's most conservative emissions target of a 60% cut. Reports in The Guardian this week make it abundantly clear that Tony Blair has no intention of paying heed to these warnings, only underlining the importance of groups like my own.

The growing and diverse movement calling for radical action to halt climate-changing carbon emissions won't be silenced by corporate-funded misinformation from recently converted, free-market, anti-green disciples like Brendan. This near cultish worship of the market, espoused by Spiked and those who fund them in the boardrooms, has blocked action on the most serious of problems for too long.

Brendan chides me personally, and the exciting grassroots movement of which I am part, as "anti-progress". Is his idea of progress a world in which there are180 million deaths from climate change this century in Sub Saharan African alone (as Christian Aid predicts)? Is his idea of progress a world in which sea levels swamp major urban conurbations? Is his idea of progress one in which hundreds of millions of people struggle to find fresh water? Because for me and my friends who campaign against the growth in aviation, progress has a very different hue.

It's time to put to rest some of the tired arguments that industry stooges like Brendan have taken to trotting out. It's important to make it clear that the battle against the unsustainable growth in aviation is not a reactionary middle-class attempt to get the hoi-palloi off "our" flights. Cheap flights haven't made it easier for poorer people to travel for the first time; they've just made it easier for the wealthy to travel more often. The Civil Aviation Authority's own data shows that the average person flying in or out of Stansted, a budget airport, earns in excess of £50k, whilst people in the bottom 20% of incomes never even set foot on a plane. Meanwhile, analysis by the industry reveals that second-home owners in Spain now take five or six flights a year. There's been an enormous growth in binge-flying with the proliferation of stag and hen nights to Eastern European destinations chosen not for their architecture or culture but because people can fly there for 99p and get loaded for a tenner. All good fun, but I can't help thinking of those 180 million Africans.

And woe betide anyone working in the UK's tourism industry. Thanks to the short-break phenomenon, Britain now has a £17 billion tourism deficit. That's thousands of smaller bed-and-breakfasts, seaside restaurants and cottage industries in Britain going under because the industry keeps telling us that flying to Barcelona is glamorous. Meanwhile government currently subsidies an Irish airline to buy American planes to enable British people to spend their pounds in Spain.

Plane Stupid has become used to scathing criticisms from people with vested interests. Debate is the lifeblood of our democracy and we're keen to engage with all the arguments but if Brendan wants to be taken seriously, he might at least try to base his case on empirical evidence. As it is, his rhetoric and statistics have all the credibility of those tractor production quotas he and his fellow travellers used to get so excited about.

BAA: The dossier


Aviation is the fastest growing cause of climate change. By 2050 it will account for more than 15% of world wide CO2 levels. To make things much worse, every tonne of emissions from aircraft has the effect of 2.7 tonnes due to its 'radiative force'. As a result, aviation is one of the single largest threats to climate stability, and consequently to life on earth.

Despite this, in 2003, under fierce lobbying from BAA, the government granted approval for the biggest airport expansion programme this country has ever seen, planning “the equivalent of a new Heathrow every five years.”

Despite their sophisticated 'Corporate Social Responsibility' greenwash campaign, I believe it would be fair to place BAA in the premier league of climate change criminals. They are behind the decision by the government for expansion and now plan to expand all of their seven major airports in the UK and to increase capacity at existing airports. The government expect the numbers of air travel passengers will triple nationally by 2030 and that it must provide for them. This is based on the same flawed ‘predict and provide’ model that the government hid behind in their plans for road building in the 1990s. In reality they are creating the conditions for demand by means of subsidies and new runways under pressure from intense lobbying by BAA.

Former aviation minister, Chris Mullins, said, "I learnt two things. First, that the demands of the aviation industry are insatiable. Second, that successive governments have usually given way to them. Although nowadays the industry pays lip-service to the notion of sustainability, its demands are essentially unchanged. It wants more of everything - airports, runways, terminals."

BAA has led a sustained campaign on behalf of practices that cause climate change. In advance of the government’s 2003 aviation white paper which paved the way for the expansion programme, BAA was the main supporter of lobby group, 'Freedom to fly.' This group is thought to be the brain child of Steve Hardwick, Director of Public Affairs at BAA who took time out to work on the Labour election campaigns of 1997 and 2001. 'Freedom to fly' was directed by John Prescott’s former personal political advisor from 1999-2001, Joe Irwin. The group was chaired by Labour peer, Brenda Dean. When, after a year, Joe Irwin resigned, he was replaced by Dan Hodges. Hodges is the son of Glenda Jackson MP, who happens to have been Labour’s first aviation minister.

The revolving door doesn’t seem to have stopped spinning between Labour and BAA. The government appointed AviaSolutions to assess the responses to its consultation on expansion. AviaSolutions is run by former high-flyers from BAA, Seamus Healey, Paul Eden and his wife, Liz. Also on the company’s board was Lyne Meredith, who previously worked as BAA’s director of planning and environment. Even now, BAA hosts from its West London offices, 'Future Heathrow', an industry lobby group chaired by Labour peer, Lord Soley. Launched personally by then-transport secretary, Alistair Darling, it was established to ensure that the third runway and sixth terminal is built.

Just as BAA and the government have not been clear about their murky, close-knit relationship, nor have they been transparent with the public about any of their plans. This is illustrated through the history of Heathrow airport.

In 1979, the planning inspector for the Terminal 4 enquiry approved the plans on the basis it would be the last major expansion at Heathrow and that flight numbers would be capped to 260,000 a year. The government agreed and ruled out further construction, but never enforced a cap, and there were over 300,000 flights a year by the time T4 opened. In 2000, the planning inspector for Terminal 5 ruled that it should be approved on the basis it would be the last major expansion and that flight numbers should be capped at 480,000. T5 is due to open in 2008, and within 9 months of T5’s approval, the government were consulting with plans for a third runway which will bring flight numbers to over 650,000 flights per year.

It wasn’t just the government who have deceived the public. BAA was right there at their side. Des Wilson, Head of Corporate and Public Affairs, during the T5 enquiry assured local residents whose homes are at risk, "BAA called on the inspector at the public enquiry, and through the inspector, the government, to rule out a third runway."

BAA is still lobbying to make certain nothing stops its new plans for expansion, not even the mounting evidence of flying-induced climate change or the fact that they will lead to the biggest forced dispersal of communities in the UK since the highland clearances.

When the bailiffs turn up to evict the residents of Sipson (an entire village near Heathrow that will be wiped of the map) it will be BAA who has paid their wages. If concrete is poured over the stunning countryside near Stansted it will be BAA who foots the bill. Responsibility for airport expansion lies firmly at the door of BAA.

BAA is putting profits before communities


Last Monday we opened up a new front in the fight against climate change when six of us chained ourselves to the doors of the British Airport Authority's (BAA) offices in protest against the company's plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport.

Two days later, Mike Clasper, the chief executive of BAA, which owns Heathrow, Gatwick and five other UK airports, tried to provide some "reassurance on aviation and climate change" when he wrote in these pages.

What Clasper failed to mention was the £9bn a year tax break that the aviation industry already receives, through tax-free fuel and VAT-free transactions. Neither did he mention that 45% of flights in Europe are 500km or less in length - destinations reachable by train, bus and ferry alternatives, which are more than 10 times less polluting.

But his biggest sleight of hand was BAA's solution to the problems caused by aircraft pollution - an emissions trading scheme, whereby the aviation industry would buy what I would term permits to pollute from other industries. A report soon to be published by the European parliament will cast real doubt on the effectiveness of such a system unless it is part of a package of measures that includes taxes on kerosene and VAT on aviation's transactions.

We suspect that BAA is pushing hard for a stand-alone emissions trading scheme because it knows it will have minimal effect on its plans for growth. At its airports across the UK, BAA is proposing the biggest single programme of airport expansion that this country has ever seen, looking for new runways at Stansted, Heathrow, Edinburgh and possibly Glasgow, with significant increases in flights at Gatwick, Aberdeen and Southampton.

When he accuses people living near Heathrow of hiding behind arguments about climate change, he is both incorrect and offensive. BAA wants to wipe established communities off the map in one of the biggest forced dispersals of people in the UK since the Highland Clearances, entirely demolishing the village of Sipson. However, his plans will also lead to the destruction of communities throughout Africa, Asia and even Europe, as the world begins to feel the full consequences of climate change.

Residents living near to airports have long suffered from the daily bane of noise and air pollution, and have consistently highlighted these problems. Indeed, Heathrow airport is probably already breaching the European Union legal limits for levels of poisonous nitrogen dioxide.

Certainly, further expansion at the airport would be subject to legal challenges, but the plans will also be a target of our direct action campaign. Local people now have nothing to lose, except that is, their homes, local church, pub and successful primary school.