The news that a third runway at Heathrow could expose 200,000 more people than previously thought to unacceptable levels of noise will come as no surprise to students of the aviation industry. There is a long history of undertakings being given in return for controversial airport expansions which are either quietly forgotten or cynically abandoned once they becoming inconvenient. During my 18 undistinguished months as a minister whose responsibilities included aviation I learned two things. First, that the demands of the aviation industry are insatiable. Second, that successive governments have usually given way to them.
Although nowadays the industry pays lip service to the notion of sustainability, its demands are essentially unchanged. It wants more of everything - airports, runways, terminals.
The industry is not even prepared to negotiate seriously on such relatively resolvable problems as the 16 night-flights which daily disrupt the sleep of several hundred thousand Londoners and are a source of continual complaint. During my time as Aviation minister I had difficulty persuading representatives of the offending airlines even to sit around a table with MPs whose constituents are affected, let alone contemplate the slightest change to their night flight schedules.
It is too easily assumed that the national interest and that of the aviation industry is synonymous. This is not necessary so. To take one obvious example, encouraging people who might otherwise holiday in this country to go on artificially cheap foreign holidays has obvious implications for our domestic tourist industry.
So far as London and the South East are concerned, I question whether the jobs created by the building of new airports and the expansion of existing ones is either beneficial or necessary. Given that much of the South East already enjoys full employment, the effect of creating more jobs is surely to continue fuelling an already overheated economy.
The main problems in the South East are a deteriorating quality of life caused by an overheated housing market, growing congestion, loss of habitats, increasing noise and other forms of pollution. In what way will any of these be mitigated by building yet more airports or by expanding existing ones?
As to the environmental impact of continuous expansion, this has been set out starkly by the government's own advisers. Sir Tom Blundell, chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recently said that if the growth of air travel were not curtailed, aircraft would have a "very significant" effect on global warming.
The government's Sustainable Development Commission has drawn attention to what it described as a "fundamental contradiction" between the demands of the aviation industry and the government's goal of sustainable development.
What is the point of maintaining such bodies if we propose to take no notice of the advice they offer? Sooner or later the bullet is going to have to be bitten and, given that the outcome of the government's present consultation will determine the direction of policy for the next thirty years, the moment has surely come.
Those who argue for indefinite expansion appear to take for granted the notion that cheap air travel is a basic human right. I beg to differ. I believe that the undoubted benefits have to be balanced against the environmental impact to a far greater extent than is already the case.
Despite ministerial assertions to the contrary, the philosophy that underlies the present consultation appears to be that of predict and provide. Predict and provide did not work for housing. It did not work for roads (although we now appear to be drifting back in that direction) and it will not work for aviation.
The White Paper very fairly sets out the consequences of unlimited expansion and they are horrendous. A new runway at Heathrow would cost another 260 homes (and a lot more would presumably be blighted) along with 228 hectares of green belt land, a church and a grade one listed building (the Harmondsworth Tithe Barn).
At Stanstead there are forecasts, if the industry gets the two new runways it would like, of passenger numbers increasing by 2030 from the present level of around 12 million a year to a mind-boggling 122 million. If that, or anything resembling it, were to come to pass the impact on surrounding communities would be devastating.
A new airport at Cliffe, were it ever to come to pass, would cost 1,100 homes, 2,000 hectares of farmland, a grade one listed church and untold damage to local wild life habitats some of which are of international importance. In addition, there would be, as the White Paper coyly puts it, "significant community annoyance" arising from the half million or so take offs and landings that could be expected from a two runways airport. All this is to say nothing of the damage caused by the necessary infrastructure "improvements" that would which would be required to cope with the getting the expected 58 million passengers a year to and from the new airport.
It doesn't bear thinking about and, to be fair to ministers, the signs are they are not thinking about it. Cliffe is the nightmare scenario, included in the hope of making other less unpalatable options seem more attractive.
There are parts of the Government's strategy with which I agree. It makes perfect sense to encourage, within reasonable limits, the expansion of regional airports. It makes sense to reduce the pressure on the South East by encouraging the growth of regional hub airports. The government is also right to insist upon improved access by public transport to airports. This should continue to be a condition of expansion and any commitments entered into by the industry should be carefully monitored to make sure they are delivered.
For the rest, however, I favour a strategy of demand management. That will mean large increases landing fees and other charges at the most congested airports. In the longer term it also means devising, along with our European partners, a workable tax on aviation fuel.
Any further concessions to the industry should be conditional on an end to night flights and, in any case, there should be no further significant expansion of airports in the South East.
Chris Mullin was Aviation minister from July 1999 to February 2001.