The disingenuous Alistair Darling

AN ENVIRONMENTAL con trick has been played on the south-east – and the area around Stansted is set to suffer. Political Editor Graham Dines believes a second runway was the only option on the Government's agenda.

AN ENVIRONMENTAL con trick has been played on the south-east – and the area around Stansted is set to suffer. Political Editor Graham Dines believes a second runway was the only option on the Government's agenda.

WHEN Transport Secretary Alistair Darling unveiled alternatives for airport growth in the United Kingdom, two environmental nightmares were thrown into the cauldron.

The first was a new airport on Thames marshland at Cliffe in Kent. Appalled conservationists and naturalists immediately set out to have the project still-born.

The second was the hint that Stansted should become an international hub airport, bigger than Heathrow, and rivalling Paris, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt. It would involve the construction of three additional runways and concreting over vast swaths of the Essex countryside.


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Both options have been rejected, as it was always the Government's intention to do. No Secretary of State could ever have got away with an airport at Cliffe. Creating a second hub in the Greater London area at Stansted would have blighted Chelmsford, Saffron Walden, Thaxted, Harlow and Bishop's Stortford as well as inflicting noise pollution in an arc reaching Ipswich, Sudbury, Cambridge and Southend.

This shroud waving by Mr Darling in July 2002 has now been uncovered for what it really was – a environmental con trick.

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So having thrown these two red herrings into a year long consultation process, it came as no surprise yesterday to find Alistair Darling ruling them out.

Casting himself as the environmental saviour from projects which were never intended, Mr Darling yesterday owned up to the real agenda intended all along – one extra runway for Stansted to be built by 2012 and a third runway for Heathrow, constructed some time between 2015 and 2020, as long as strict noise and pollution controls are met.

The Secretary of State wants to be able to look the people of the Stansted area in the eye and say – had it not been for me, things would have much worse. Two or three new runways would have resulted in the loss of about half of the Elsenham Wood site of special scientific interest, 1,200 hectares of high grade agricultural land, and the demolition of 200 homes.

One runway may "only" involve the loss of 100 homes, two scheduled ancient monuments, and 700 hectares of high grade agricultural land.

The problem for worried residents is the uncertainty. In the original consultation document, the second runway was shown at the eastern most extremity of the possible land grab, slashing its way to the north-west of Bamber's Green and nearly taking out Takeley.

It's now up to the British Airports Authority to decide where to locate its new runway, and it could be near the existing one. There is no clear indication yet in what is essentially a very muddled and confused picture.

But why not expand London's second airport, Gatwick, rather than Stansted? The problem there is a land covenant preventing such a prospect until 2019. And being men and women of their word, the Government will not seek to overturn the legal agreement, although land would be put aside there in case the conditions relating to Heathrow cannot be met.

Unsurprisingly, Mid Essex and the green lobby is not best pleased. Chelmsford West Tory MP Simon Burns said the prospect for life in the area was "grim."

Mr Burns derided the Prime Minister's "Big Conversation," consulting people on their opinions as the Government shapes future policy. "He has totally ignored the thousands of letters and opinions that have been sent to the Government opposing the expansion of Stansted."

James Abbott, Essex Green Party co-ordinator, said: "This rotten Labour Government of environmental vandals is about to trash Essex. It seems oblivious to the fact that its plans are squeezing even more jets into the crowded airspace over the south east."

Adrian Ramsay, the party's national spokesman on planning and economic development, said 50million more people would access the expanded airport by car each year, generating traffic levels which would have a devastating effect on the environment and quality of life.

But what's poison to mid Essex is joy to parts of Suffolk. Chris Mole, Ipswich's Labour MP, was jubilant at the plans. "For Ipswich, it's very good news. There is little down side.

"The only time we should notice more planes is when there is over-capacity and they need to stack over Ipswich."

Mr Mole said the expanded airport "will be a great boost for business in the area. To attract international business, you need easy access to international airports."

So Suffolk's happy, especially as Mr Darling promised road and rail improvements to Stansted.

Elsewhere, new runways or new terminals are to be constructed at Belfast, Derry, Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham, although new airports for central Scotland and the West Midlands have been squashed.

But Stansted is the big "winner." It will now become one of the top airports in Europe.

Despite the brave words of Carol Barbone of the Stop Stansted Expansion Campaign that "this will never happen – we shall step up the campaign significantly," it's a racing certainty that it will be given the go-ahead.

Although Uttlesford district council will turn down the planning application from the British Airports Authority, it's inconceivable a public inquiry will find in the residents' favour.

Stansted will be built for the greater good because the Government tells us it's the best environmental option.

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