Jayne Dowle: Heathrow airport decision another snub to the North

I crawled past Heathrow airport last Bank Holiday. The traffic jams on the M25 around the slipway added half an hour to what had otherwise been an uneventful Sunday morning journey from South Yorkshire to Surrey to visit family.

An artist's impression of the third runway at Heathrow
An artist's impression of the third runway at Heathrow

If there’s congestion here at this time on a quiet weekend, what’s it going to be like if the third Heathrow runway, heralded this week by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, receives full approval and goes ahead?

Like a jumbo jet circling overhead, the debate over Heathrow expansion seems to have rumbled on for years. Yet now the national policy statement has been announced, the decision will be made at rapid speed. Parliamentary protocol dictates that a Commons vote must follow within 21 days.

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Current political vibes suggest that Grayling is so frightened of losing control – and possibly his job – he is urging a snappy three-line Government whip.

And then we wonder why our so-called national transport policy is so piecemeal and chaotic. If this is the way irrevocable decisions are made, it’s a wonder anyone reaches anywhere on time.

I don’t want to hear another politician blaming Brexit for the haste either. If this country is to remain cohesive in the face of future challenges, it cannot be weighted unfairly at the bottom.

As we sat in the Heathrow-bound traffic I fell into conversation with the children about planes, funnily enough. If two kids can question why it’s not feasible to fly to many US destinations from airports in Yorkshire and the North, why can’t the Secretary of State for Transport take it on board too?

My two made an excellent point. When we flew to Los Angeles a few years back, we endured the ridiculous situation of a four-hour car journey from South Yorkshire to Heathrow to catch the plane.

And now we have Doncaster-Sheffield airport on our doorstep, hoping for a multi-million pound international expansion and a proposed new rail link to connect with Leeds and Newcastle. Our forward-thinking regional airports do not deserve to be treated like second-class options; it’s here where the potential for growth really lies.

The Transport Secretary should be careful what he wishes for. This is more than a vote about an airport. It is a timely reminder of the Prime Minister’s 2017 General Election manifesto promise to listen to the North.

Tomorrow marks a year since Mrs May was returned to Downing Street. So far, we are not impressed by her efforts. This newspaper, along with other regional titles, is petitioning the Prime Minister to address urgently the matter of chaotic rail services outside the capital. An announcement on Heathrow is a fine way to underline her commitment to getting the country moving.

And it also has the potential to cause serious damage to the Government. Rotherham-born Conservative MP Justine Greening, whose Putney constituency in west London would be adversely affected by increased aircraft noise and pollution, is urging a free Commons vote. “I’ve always been clear I can’t support this proposal going through parliament, even if it’s whipped,” she told Radio 4’s Today programme.

The prospect of a rebellion just before the summer recess is not one that the Prime Minister will welcome. The issue demands proper debate.

Heathrow is an opportunity for all MPs to talk about transport. For too long now we have all been guilty of dividing up transport into neat little boxes; roads, rail, airports, cycling, walking.

As this perfect storm of airport expansion in the South East and cancelled, withdrawn and over-crowded trains in the North gathers speed, surely the time has come to address the entire matter. Politicians must consider all the implications, instead of being forced to take a party political stance. For instance, what levels of chaos might motorists expect if the proposed tunnel – yes, a tunnel – is constructed under the M25 to accommodate the new runway?

If this happens, I think the only way we will be going to Surrey for the foreseeable future is via a plane from a regional airport to Southampton and then driving back up the M3.

Sorry to bore you with my personal travel dilemmas, but this is the point that Grayling and many other politicians are totally missing – whether they are standing judge and jury over an extra runway at Heathrow or cutting vital train services across the North.

Every journey taken, disrupted, delayed or not taken at all, is a personal one. The decisions made on our behalf do not take into account the impact which inadequate or ill-placed transport has on the lives of millions of people. And neither do they appear to address the good of the country as a whole, or pay respect to the voices which press for fairer economic and employment opportunities for all.

Transport is more than a means of getting from A to B. It’s the lifeblood of society, pumping prosperity through its veins. It’s time that all politicians took it seriously and considered exactly where their loyalties lie.