Heathrow: No free ride for Zac Goldsmith

A village green in Harmondsworth behind which is a church; to the left is a pub, the Five Bells, and an old house is to the right. Cars are parked on roads outside the pub and house and a yellow litter bin is in the foreground.Today the government announced its preferred option for airport expansion in the south-east of England, and as had been expected, that was a third runway at Heathrow in west London. The other main option had been a second runway at Gatwick, to the south of London. This does not (contrary to the BBC’s report) mean that the plans have been approved, which means it will get built; there still has to be a debate in Parliament (where there may well be a free vote) and there are likely to be legal challenges. The Heathrow plan has long been opposed by Boris Johnson, currently foreign secretary, who represents Uxbridge which is in the same borough as most of the airport (Hillingdon), and Zac Goldsmith, who represents Richmond Park constituency to the south-east of the existing airport, parts of which suffer severely from noise from low-flying planes (having visited friends in nearby Isleworth, I know how disruptive this can be), and has ‘resigned’ in protest, triggering a by-election in which he intends to stand.

I’m against airport expansion in general; we already have four large airports surrounding London and we do not have as much land to spare as other large cities in Europe. On land grounds alone, Gatwick looked ideal, as there was already a strip of land to the south of the existing airport which could be used, and as it runs east to west, it will not result in significant noise blight nearby (the major towns in the area, Horley and Crawley, are to the north and south). It has better rail links than Heathrow, which has a slow Tube line and a branch line which only leads into London; Gatwick has fast rail links to both the City and West End, is served by Thameslink and a link to Reading, and the link to the West Coast Main Line could be reinstated if there was the political will. However, its road links are poorer; the road route to Gatwick from almost anywhere in the country passes via Heathrow. If Gatwick were extended, congestion on the southern and western parts of the M25 would increase, likely resulting in a need for another motorway link such as the long-abandoned ‘M31’ scheme. Pressure would also build to relieve congestion at the Dartford Tunnel, which already suffers huge tailbacks.

However, the Heathrow plan will extend the airport west of the M25, require the demolition of much of Harmondsworth village and the whole of Longford, on the north-western edge of the airport currently, and its flight path to the east will pass directly over the villages of Sipson and Harlington; it will require the demolition of a lot of airport-related industrial premises and require the demolition or rerouting of several major roads, including the A4. Quite apart from the carbon emissions, which will increase when the three runways are used to capacity (if one does not believe the promises of night-time flight bans, fewer delays and circumnavigations of the airport by planes that cannot land, and so on), the new runway will increase the area of London blighted by aircraft noise by a third.

The decision has led to the ‘resignation’ of Zac Goldsmith, triggering a by-election in his Richmond Park constituency, which includes part of Kingston where I live (I live in the Kingston and Surbiton constituency, represented by James Berry). Goldsmith was previously editor of the Ecologist and won the seat from the Lib Dems in 2010; they had previously held it since 1997 (Jenny Tonge until 2005, then Susan Kramer). He had a reputation as a progressive “green Tory” until he stood for mayor of London this year, during which he relied on Lynton Crosby to smear his Labour opponent, Sadiq Khan, with baseless stories of association with Muslim extremists, as well as courting Hindu and Sikh voters with anti-Muslim appeals.

On previous occasions where the sitting MP has triggered a by-election as a protest (e.g. Haltemprice and Howden in 2008), the main opposition parties have not fielded candidates. As this MP has a record of running campaigns based on bigotry, he should not be allowed a free ride. The Lib Dems have opposed the expansion of Heathrow airport for years and have the best chance of taking it from the Tories; this was one of their strongholds for years and they should field a strong candidate. Labour should stand aside; they have never held Richmond Park, they make next to no effort in this part of London and putting up a candidate can only split the vote. The opportunity should not be lost to erase this stain and both Labour and the Lib Dems should seize it. 

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