Live by the greenwash, die by it too. Barely six days after Heathrow Airport declared it had been certified carbon neutral, its third-runway ambitions were trapped in a peat bog. The court of appeal decided that UK aviation policy had not sufficiently made reference to the Paris climate change agreement; and the government declared with a straight face that, committed as it was to a greener future, it would simply have to bow to the judge.
However much the law has spoken and campaigners have won a famous victory, it is once again opportunistic politics, above legal judgments and environmental concerns, that will doom the scheme.
For Heathrow, it is not so much Groundhog Day as groundhog decade. Almost exactly 10 years ago, in March 2010, a high court judge upheld the claims of anti-third-runway protesters, ruling that the government had failed to scrupulously account for climate change in approving the London airport’s expansion. The verdict required the government to redraw its policy statement; but the Conservative leader, David Cameron, had pinned his colours to the anti-expansion mast. In the wake of the election two months later, he was in Downing Street and it was clear that the scheme was dead.
A strikingly similar scenario appears to have killed off Heathrow’s ambitions again last week. While the airport believes the judgment only presents a small hurdle to clear, it cannot do so if the government declines to jump. For Boris Johnson, in whom those Churchillian qualities of decisive, bold leadership are daily more absent, the ruling is perfect cover. Instead of either embracing or challenging the ruling, the PM left it to his transport secretary to say that the government did not have a dog in this fight, and that Heathrow could appeal if it wanted to.
It is, therefore, difficult to prove the claim that this ruling marks a historic watershed whereby governments must rein in policy to the greater demands of the Paris climate accords. The true test case will surely be when a scheme upon which a government is hell-bent is forced through the environmental wringer. Campaigners will hope the Department for Transport proves equally unattached to its prospective multibillion-pound road-building projects, such as the Oxford-to-Cambridge expressway or the Lower Thames Crossing.
Much has, of course, changed since 2010: ever more people are aware of the climate emergency, and – at least outside Trump’s America – the imperative to act is perceived to be far more urgent. The aviation industry itself has, belatedly, addressed the need to clean up. But whether Johnson, who immediately availed himself of a long-haul flight to the Caribbean to enjoy his first weeks as prime minister, is any more dedicated an environmentalist than his husky-hugging forebear remains to be seen.
The financial crisis swiftly changed priorities for the government in the years after 2010, with Cameron soon commissioning an inquiry to restore the runway he had ruled out, in the name of economic growth. It remains to be seen whether coronavirus will indeed surpass the banking crisis for wrecking the global economy, or just how much Brexit will affect Britain’s own economic health. Both, certainly, could cause enough woe to make foreign travel less desirable or affordable – potentially solving the problem of airport capacity.
But should Britain trundle on, post-Brexit, into the bog-standard doldrums, it would be little surprise to see Heathrow’s runway back on the agenda. In the same breath as it vaunted its environmental credentials, the government said airport expansion remained core to economic growth.
For all the current talk of “levelling up” the regions, the reasons that the Cameron-appointed Airports Commission decided a bigger Heathrow was a better bet than, say, Birmingham or a fantasy Thames island airport, are unlikely to change. With luck, another two decades of stalling may provide time to develop planes clean enough for Heathrow’s – and the government’s – green claims to ring true.
An economy confronting a global crisis will need state support
The parallels with the 2008 financial crisis have become all too clear: stock markets falling by record amounts in a single day, with the FTSE and Dow Jones indices posting the fastest corrections – a drop of at least 10% from the previous peak – since 1933 and the depths of the Great Depression.
The coronavirus panic spreading around the planet has triggered an unfurling crisis for the world economy, with the worst-case scenario including world GDP collapsing into recession for the first time since the banks went bust. The question, for now, is how central banks and governments can stem the bleeding.
There is little comfort to be had from the former. After a decade of interest rates remaining close to the lowest levels on record, central banks lack the capacity to respond by cutting them further. The Bank of England still has interest rates at 0.75%, compared with 5.75% at the outset of the last crisis. It is purchasing around GBP435bn of government bonds, under its quantitative easing programme, to keep borrowing costs at record lows.
The US Federal Reserve has more room to operate, but the European Central Bank stands perhaps least well equipped, with negative interest rates in place amid weak growth across the eurozone.
Furthermore, the coronavirus represents a massive shock to the supply side of the economy, whereas central bank strategies serve to support demand. Monetary policy cannot keep factories open if an epidemic has closed them.
However, companies that come under strain as their customers are forced awaywill require the support to weather the storm until the supply-side constraints are lifted. For this, monetary policy can help – albeit this time in a limited way. Instead, governments will need to step in with direct financial aid. Just like in 2008, the state will have to intervene.
Gambling industry leaves little to chance in face of crackdown
It’s a racing certainty that the 2005 Gambling Act will be radically overhauled or completely replaced during this parliament. Public outrage at scandals involving the industry has reached a tipping point, and going after betting firms looks like an easy PR win for a government that could do with one.
Yes, tighter regulation could eat into the annual GBP3bn tax take that comes from betting. But that should be offset against the cost to society of problem gambling, estimated by some to be up to GBP1.2bn.
According to the National Audit Office, the industry has been running rings around its regulator, the Gambling Commission, which does some sterling work in dishing out fines for problem gambling and anti-money laundering failures.
But still the transgressions continue, and the NAO fears a watchdog with just GBP19m of funds is toothless in the face of an industry that wins GBP11.3bn a year from punters.
A beefed-up commission is one likely outcome of new legislation, but much more is at stake, including online casino stake limits, tougher affordability checks on punters, and curbs on much-criticised VIP programmes.
Gambling firms have everything to lose and deep pockets, so they are not going to give up without a fight. Already, warriors are being dispatched to the frontline.
The newly formed industry trade body, the Betting and Gaming Council, representing betting shops, online gaming business and casinos, recruited former pubs lobbyist Brigid Simmonds to chair it, while ex-Labour MP Michael Dugher is its new chief executive. A former political journalist, Kevin Schofield, has been named as its new communications chief. Philip Davies MP, a staunch friend of the gambling industry, is set for a seat on the department for culture, media and sport select committee.
That’s a formidable alliance boasting connections throughout Westminster. Those looking to rein the gambling industry in have one hell of a fight on their hands.