Sunday, 24 February 2008

Winners and losers

Democracy is not pretty. Messy and unplanned, different groups, often acting largely out of self-interest, conflict with each other, grinding out necessary (and unnecessary) compromises.

Politics at the centre might be ugly, but its attraction is power, as well as money.

But in local government there is none of the acquired glamour of the centre, none of the real power, only the messy business of politics. The locality is the arena for clashing egos and interest groups, residents’ associations and aspiring politicians, cynical bureaucrats and a disempowered public.

All of these elements were on display last week at a local meeting in Isleworth, West London, part of a consultation exercise as part of the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

The airport lies five miles to the west of Isleworth. The planes tend to land following a flight path taking them directly over the town, as well as many other areas of West London.

This means that any expansion to the airport, particularly one that will see an increase to the number of aircraft taking off and landing, will have a big effect on the residents.

As a result, the meeting on Thursday was well attended, with around 100 people turning up to the local working men’s club (a hangover, if you’ll forgive the pun, from the relatively recent time when Isleworth was the site of a large brewery).

The curious overlap of self-interested groups attending the meeting was clear from the start. To sit down, I had to move a leaflet from the Conservative Party; the local Conservative parliamentary candidate had organized the event, and she chaired the discussion.

Five people gave talks. Four were opposed while the industry representative was the lonely voice in favour. He declared that he was a local resident also, but still supported the expansion. His argument focused on the economic advantage to the country that the expansion would bring, and he downplayed any concerns about additional noise.

The other speakers varied in quality. The local council’s aviation representative Barbara Reid was superb: articulate, factual, witty and rousing.

John Stewart, representing the campaign group HACAN, was also on form, willing to go toe-to-toe on the economics argument presented by both the government and industry.

A Friends of the Earth campaigner – whose name I did not catch – gave the weakest speech. It was incoherent and unplanned; the archetypal environmental campaigner, I’m sorry to say. The fourth speaker, a local councillor from an Isleworth-only micro-party, said little to add to the other contributions.

There was a question and answer session afterwards, in which a few of the local residents asked questions. However, at least half the questions were posed by other local politicians – including the local London Assembly member and the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate – as the Conservative chair played safe when choosing who would have the floor.

In conclusion, it is hard to be optimistic about the campaign to oppose the expansion. The key point, put most forcefully by members of the public, was that the decision had effectively already been made to expand the airport, even though it was a plan opposed by most of the area’s residents.

They – understandably – wished to know what point there was in further opposition, other than to make the process slower and more awkward. Unsurprisingly, they received few answers.

Over the last 30 years West Londoners have been regularly informed that there would be no further expansion of the airport, only for this to be proved untrue. Now, all trust has gone, and the residents, and local council, are simply opposed to any expansion. It is hard not to sympathise – Heathrow makes a poor neighbour.

And the answer? The most obvious is a solution rejected in the 1970s: a full replacement airport outside of London. Heathrow is unusual in that it is such a large airport so close to residential areas.
Recent suggestions that this plan will end up coming to fruition one day, have the ring of truth about them.

Until that day it seems that West Londoners are going to be walked all over by national politicians who find the arguments of the aviation industry far more persuasive than the voices of locality.

But though their fight might ultimately prove fruitless, the experience and high public profile given to the aspiring local politicians fighting the cause may mean they are the biggest winners of them all.


max said...

There was a very interesting answer given by Norman Foster during a recent interview on Radio4.
The matter of the question was the Bejing Airport that he designed and how the undemocratic Chinese government had disregarded the views of the residents whose lives have been dramatically altered by the construction.
He very candidly said that here in Britain it's just the same, that decisions are taken in discussions behind closed doors but unlike in China we put up a pretence that those decisions were taken through some form of transparent collective thinking through consultation, he really positively stated that in Britain and in China those decisions have the same level of democratic input.
I cannot think of another man as informed on these things as he is.
I was quite shocked at hearing it.

Tom said...

Yes, I think many of the people that attended the meeting on Thursday would agree. They feel that the decision has been made and that the voice of the 'little man' is ignored.

However, there is a difference between the UK and China. We DO live in a democracy; we do have some control over those in power; we don't have extensive human rights violations, censorship and political prisoners.

But in the UK when local clashes with central it does seem that central has more or less all the power.

Anonymous said...

around 3,000 people packed out Westminster Central Hall at a 'Stop the Expansion' rally this evening, which was quite inspiring.

Oli F said...

Interesting article. With regard to disempowerment of people's opinions, we seem to have to rely on these sorts of direct actions now:

Not sure if these sorts of things are ultimately counterproductive, but you do wonder what else one is supposed to do if you feel your opinions are ignored...

Oli F said...

URL went screwy, try this:

Link to article