On 18th of January 2012 Cambridge MP Julian Huppert, who also acts as the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, was interviewed on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman on the subject of the proposed new airport in the Thames estuary.
Paxman: “As long as you are part of the collation, will this happen?”
Huppert: “No I don’t think it’s going to happen. But frankly its not just a collation story I think this is very much a Boris election gimmick. I’ve been talking to lots of Conservative MPs today who think this is just as daft as most of the rest of us.”
Paxman: “It’s not about Boris, it’s about the need for more airport capacity”.
Huppert: “If it was about the need for more airport capacity you would see the Department for Transport being involved in this having actually done some work to study it”.
Paxman: “But you’re against it full stop aren’t you? You’re against the idea of any further airport capacity”.
Huppert: “I’m against expansion in the South East of Britain as I don’t think it makes a lot of sense from an environmental perspective”.
Paxman: “While you’re in Government, however long it lasts, there will be no expansion in capacity?”
Huppert: “We’ve been quite clear. We’ll have to see. There will now be a consultation and we’ll have to see what happens. But the coalition agreement is quite clear about where we are going to be going, we’re not gong to be moving away from that. And I think that John has been quote accurately outlining the problems with all the possible solutions and I think that they outweigh all the possible benefits there would be. We do have to reach our climate change targets, that means not investing in damaging projects like these. ”
Paxman: “The problem with you is that we can’t believe a word you say. This was in your manifesto; ‘no third runway’ and other similar commitments; as was a commitment not to increase student fees.”
Huppert: “Well we’ve been very clear on this one, we sill stick to it. ”
Paxman: “So this is one you will abide by is it?”
Huppert: “Well I have to say as someone who did vote against student fees I have stuck to that.”
Paxman: “Well bully for you. Has Nick Clegg given you an assurance that on this occasion he means what he says?”
Huppert: “We have been very clear. The Department for Transport does not seem to be backing this. I think if you look at what they’ve been saying today… ”
Paxman: “What do you care if what Department for Transport thinks? Isn’t it a matter of principle for you?”
Huppert: “I’m delighted to say that in this case it seems the Department for Transport isn’t supporting it, we’re not supporting it, the local MPs who are Conservatives are not supporting it. I think John said earlier on that there are very few people supporting it at all. We’re not supporting it and we’re going to stick to that. ”
Huppert: “…This Boris island idea is part of the Foster and Partners package of ideas. Many of the other things they are suggesting are very sensible. Extra rail to link up our ports properly, so that goods come in, that could be very good for the economy, that can be done a lot faster and would be a lot cheaper than this for more benefit. ”
Paxman: “The problem is the same though isn’t it, that you guys are living from election to election and these things take years and years to put in place.”
Huppert: “Indeed. And that’s something which we have to resolve. And the interaction with the media and politicians also shortens the time period with 24 hour cycles.”
Paxman: “So the fact that you guys haven’t got the guts to make decision is somehow the media’s fault is it?”
Huppert: “No, but we do need to be better at taking decisions, and in fact we are increasing for example on rail investment. The autumn statement included £1.4 billion of rail investment, we’re investing more in rail than ever since the Victorian period and this is showing that politicians are starting to take those decisions. We will continue to do so. I hope we will be able to have even more investment in that sort of infrastructure.”
Paxman: “Has Nick Clegg given you an assurance on this?”
Huppert: “On what? On the fact that we announced….? ”
Paxman: “That there will be no expansion of airports in the South East?”
Huppert: “That is our clear manifesto commitment. There is nothing to suggest anything else. There will be some further work, there is an air strategy coming out, I do not believe that will be an outcome with an airport in the South East. Actually Boris’ antics today with his flight of fancy have made it harder for his case.
Clearly Huppert is suffering from his association with the Liberal Democrats.
He rightly defended his personal record on voting against tuition fees, but equally I think it was a reasonable for Paxman to raise the matter as Huppert through his support for the Liberal Democrats and the coalition government did enable the increase in tuition fees to go ahead. I do not think Huppert spoke and argued as strongly as he could of done against the tuition fee increase as an MP. I’m not convinced he was not gagged by his party on tuition fees, though he has denied it and said he was joking when he said during a public lecture that he had promised his party whips he wouldn’t speak on the subject. .
I tweeted following the Paxman interview wondering if being put in difficult positions while being asked to answer on behalf of his government and his party leader might put Huppert off party politics.
As for the policy of opposing airport expansion in South East; I think we need to support the British economy. It’s only though having a strong economy that we can afford the things we want in this country like social security, the NHS, and high quality policing and schools. Having world class air-transport links to the rest of the world is clearly essential if we’re to remain a major centre for business, particularly knowledge based industries, and academia.
I think a class of air travellers who we really need to tackle are those who fly regularly for leisure purposes. I find it astonishing at the number of people who claim lead environmentally friendly lives, and who spurn plastic carrier bags for example, but who take many flights for holidays and social purposes.
As for the estuary airport; the birds and the shipwreck full of explosives are clearly major issues, but if they can be surmounted then it appears to be a good a location worth considering for a new airport for London. The aim, for an international hub airport, is a good one, I think that’s a facility we should strive to keep in the UK, and the proposals are being put forward by a firm who have produced similar airports elsewhere in the world. The proposals should be taken seriously, but other options, such as being bold and expanding Heathrow to the North (despite objections) ought be considered too. There are pros and cons of each, but in my view we need to do one or the other; we need to either expand Heathrow or build a new airport for London to secure the country’s future.
Where I do agree with Julian Huppert is that there are less dramatic, less fanciful, ways of investing in infrastructure in the UK. Better rail connections to ports could take a lot of heavy transport of our roads. In making this suggestion I suspect Julian Huppert was thinking of his own constituency and the great benefits which Cambridge would see if the quantity of heavy transport on the A14 was reduced. Our telecommunications infrastructure is also far behind the best in the world; despite the geographical advantages we have of having a relatively dense population most of which would be relatively cost effective to serve with fibre optic to the premises.