Thursday, 19 January 2012
Time for an Estuary airport referendum?
Well the gloves are off and the proper campaign begins across Medway, Gravesham, Sheppey, Thurrock and Essex to oppose the London Conservative plan for a mega-airport in North Kent.
An idea, which three years ago started as joke island off the Isle of Sheppey, has morphed, slowly but predictably, to onsite options at Grain and Cliffe on the Peninsula area of North Kent. A mega-airport which will impact hundreds of thousands of residents and change the community fabric of towns and cities across the Estuary.
The community in Medway has seen this fight before, but this time the plans are more detailed and being led by the Cameron Conservatives. Plans which if not opposed would uproot communities, destroy sites of significant ecological interest and land North Kent with ten years of transport chaos as the most beautiful part of North Kent and the Peninsula becomes a concrete slab. Surrounding areas would be blighted with noise and pollution.
So says the NIMBYist who would be opposed?
And you would be right, but this is not because I don’t support public consultation on aviation; it is because the consultation itself has ruled out too many options before it even starts. No cross-party aviation group, a rule out of Heathrow (November 2011), Gatwick expansion (May 2010) and Stansted (May 2010) and you end up with very few options left.Birmingham has support but would require a link with HS2, which is itself under review and opposition. Kent has access to Europe, HS1 already built and nearby, two major motorways (M2 and M20), employment prospects and a working proposal for a further crossing East of Dartford. No surprises to anyone where this government is angling which makes it important that a proper campaign is run now.
Residents here have spent three years of being played as pawns by the Tories as proposal after proposal is released and trailed in the press, and this consultation I believe will be just the same if it is led by the Tories alone.
It is a test of local resolve across the Estuary to send a very clear message to the government.
And this clear message should not just come from a band of unknown grey-beards in the Council chamber, irrespective of composition, but by the collective voices of residents.
In Medway, we have been here before - less then a decade ago many Tories worked with Labour MPs on the anti-Cliffe airport campaign. The idea of Cliffe was even less developed then, but the Council resources were used to send posters, fix lamp-post placards and support local groups. This was right because it worked; the airport was dropped. The subsequent election saw Labour defeated locally and a Conservative administration formed.
The point is that this time, despite the plans being even more developed, the ruling Tories have not endorsed any formal strategy. They have waited too long and have been exposed by their own admittance to a woeful ‘pie-in-the-sky’ campaign, which was simply a low-cost way of not campaigning. The simple truth is that residents in North Kent owe no loyalty to a ruling Tory elite, and especially not now when there are questions about why more is not being done.
It is important for strong Labour groups to organise at the County, Unitary, District and Parish level. This means it is ever important to have a strong, capable and nimble opposition ensuring that pressure is applied to ensure that the Tories represent residents and that MPs are held to account in representing resident interest. An opposition which can work with partners in government and the region and which can effectively articulate itself to residents.
This does mean being robust and being engaged. Being in close contact on any campaign requires tenacity and perseverance.
Last week, before today’s news, Labour proposed a referendum on an airport in the Thames Estuary, at a full Council meeting, because we believed (correctly) it would be in the government proposals. We believed that a Unitary Authority wide referendum would allow residents across Medway to finally give a say to the idea once and for all, which on all polling currently would be a resounding No. An outcome to a consultation based on votes rather than the opinions of a distant elite who thus far have seemed incapable of doing anything against their own. A referendum which would send a message to Westminster that you can’t just impose a solution because of three years of attrition, and/or because you want to play a game of chess between East and West London for votes. A referendum which would send a message that if you want to proposed mega-solutions you need to work in government with the opposition and groups on solutions and engage in a proper consultation of all the options.
The referendum was opposed by the Conservatives in the Council chamber and dropped, but the message was sent to residents and that is unlike ten years ago the Tories are closing off solutions and not suggesting any. A mistake that showed they do not trust the electorate to give a say on something that will fundamentally alter our civic environment.
Labour meanwhile is seen as leading on ideas and that is where we need to be if we are to regain the trust of people for the future.
We will continue to campaign locally as part of a cross-party group but the public expect results and they expect action. We can not have the next six months be the same dithering and delay of the last, because without a clear resolve and local leadership a poor campaign will send a green light for the bulldozers and that is not in our interest or yours.
Tristan Osborne is Labour Councillor for Luton & Wayfield Ward & Press & Media Officer for Medway Labour Group
Posted by Stuart King at 08:09