Alastair Dalton: Time for leadership from SNP over Heathrow

Wrangling over a third runway at Heathrow airport continues. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Wrangling over a third runway at Heathrow airport continues. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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For the many Scots flying through Heathrow over the festive season, the latest delay to deciding on its expansion will simply make the agonising wait for improvements longer.

The London airport remains the UK’s international air gateway, but it’s full, and there’s little prospect of many more Scottish flights there without another runway.

Scottish ministers agree the lack of progress is bad for Scotland, and have been vocal in their criticism of their UK government counterparts for putting off making their minds up for at least another six months.

That announcement last week was met with an understandably blunt reaction from business leaders. In refreshingly direct language that came in stark contrast to the meaningless waffle often spouted by the corporate world, the British Chambers of Commerce denounced the “gutless” move.

The disbelief was absolutely understandable. After all, the UK government set up an independent commission more than three years ago to help settle an issue that has been dodged by governments for decades.

The commission reported six months ago and ministers pledged to respond by the end of the year - but now look what’s happened.

UK Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin told MPs on 1 July: “We will come back to parliament in the autumn to provide clear direction on the government’s plans”.

The actual outcome will do nothing to enhance the public’s trust in politicians, or lessen the widespread cynicism that what they say bears little relation to what they often then do.

So you might think the Scottish Government joining the condemnation was entirely justified.

Infrastructure, investment and cities secretary Keith Brown said: “The UK government has dragged its heels on the issue of airport expansion for decades, so it’s incredibly disappointing to find out this decision has been delayed by a further six months.”

In particular, he said it increased the chances that flights between Scotland and London would be cut back.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this delay shows a blatant lack of leadership that will prove costly for Scotland,” he fumed.

But there is a glaring anomaly in the Scottish Government’s position. What Mr Brown didn’t say is the SNP still hasn’t said whether it backs a new runway at Heathrow or rivals Gatwick.

That’s pretty fundamental, because when it comes to the crunch, Nationalist votes in the House of Commons could yet prove crucial if the Conservatives prove to be split on the issue.

Now, observers might say this is a deliberate tactic - for the SNP to keep their powder dry to enable their MPs to extract the best possible advantage to Scotland out of mess.

But in the current atmosphere of lack of trust over the intentions of their political opponents, the SNP risks being tarred with the same brush if it is not more honest with voters.

Aviation policy in Scotland remains under the control of Westminster, but the Nationalists argue that the Scottish people - through their MSPs - should have control over every area of Scottish life. SNP Westminster transport spokesman Drew Hendry even claimed credit for putting pressure on the Tories to pledge not to put off a decision on the runway issue.

So let’s see some leadership where the SNP say it is lacking in other parties, and know what they want for us.