Sunday, 4 January 2009

IoS Investigation: Officials plotted Sellafield cover-up

MPs were denied the chance to challenge sweetener to private firm's nuclear deal
By Geoffrey Lean, Andy Rowell and Rich CooksonSunday, 4 January 2009

Top civil servants and nuclear administrators colluded to prevent MPs from challenging a massive sweetener to a private business taking over the running of Sellafield, internal documents in the hands of The Independent on Sunday reveal.
The documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, also disclose that the Government pushed through the handover at breakneck speed because it feared that the "unstable management arrangements" of the controversial Cumbrian nuclear complex risked its safety.
Yesterday, a leading Labour MP announced that he would try to get a parliamentary investigation into the revelations in the documents, which run to 140 pages and had been so heavily censored prior to release that many whole pages, and the names of most of the officials involved, have been systematically blanked out. Paul Flynn MP, a member of the House of Commons Public Administration Committee – which examines the performance of the Civil Service – is to ask it to inquire into what he calls "an egregious example of obstruction of parliamentary accountability".
The cover-up arises from the awarding, late in November, of a contract to run the nuclear complex to Nuclear Management Partners, a consortium of US, French and British companies. Although the contract is worth some £22bn, the consortium told ministers that it would walk away from the deal unless it was fully indemnified against the costs of cleaning up an accident at what is one of the world's most hazardous nuclear sites.
Normally, as the documents repeatedly acknowledge, the Government would place a special minute before Parliament if it intended to undertake a liability of more than £250,000. MPs would then have 14 days to raise an objection, which would stop the undertaking going ahead until it had been dealt with. But MPs were not told about the Sellafield indemnity until 75 days after the last moment when they could object, even though it potentially exposes the taxpayer to liabilities running into billions.
The energy minister Mike O'Brien blames a "clerical oversight" for this. But the documents clearly show that the senior civil servants and nuclear administrators had been actively discussing how to limit MPs' chance to object at least since early last year.
The documents have come to light only as a result of persistent pressure from Dr David Lowry, an independent environmental policy and research consultant, who is a member of Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates. The documents make it clear that the Government was determined to hurry through the handover of operations at Sellafield as quickly as possible because of what one of them calls "the current unstable management arrangements overseeing these extremely sensitive sites, and their high hazard inventories". Another adds that this instability "constitutes a genuine risk to health, safety and environmental performance" at the complex.
A rushed timetable was drawn up which involved naming a preferred bidder for the contract on 11 July and signing a transitional agreement on 6 October. But this clashed with the long parliamentary summer recess, which ran from late July to the very day set aside for the signing.
If the Government were to stick to its speeded-up timetable, the documents say, "the very earliest date" in which the minute could be laid before Parliament would be 14 July, shortly before the recess began on the 22nd.
Determined not to slow down the handover, the Government decided to reduce the period in which MPs could object. On 26 March, an official whose name and department has been blanked out emailed the official Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) to stress the requirement to "shorten the 14 working parliamentary days that an indemnity would normally need before it can become effective".
The official added: "To get this down to five days, we will need to muster some persuasive arguments and I wondered where you had got to on assembling these." Two days later he was sent a "first draft" of the argument including an assertion that the "vulnerability of Sellafield operations is already seen as a significant safety risk".
But by early June, the idea of giving MPs any time at all to object had been abandoned. Another email to the NDA, from apparently the same blanked-out official, reported a "conclusion" that a letter should merely be written to Edward Leigh MP, the chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, "rather than go for a shorter notice period to the House".
A minute "explaining what has happened" would be laid before MPs only "when Parliament reconvenes in the autumn", by which time it would be too late to raise objections. On 14 July, the then energy minister Malcolm Wicks duly wrote to Mr Leigh; he did not object and the indemnity went into force before MPs knew about it.
In his letter, Mr Wicks assured Mr Leigh that he was placing a copy of the letter and the minute in "the libraries of the house". In fact this did not happen until 15 October, 75 days after the final date on which MPs could raise an objection. Mr O'Brien, who succeeded Mr Wicks, blamed "a minor error by a junior official", but later conceded that his department had not checked for three months whether the documents had reached the libraries.
Mr Flynn says that he and other MPs had already been raising questions about the indemnity and would have been likely to raise objections, and accuse the Government of trying to push it through "without anyone noticing".
Other confidential documents, received after two Freedom of Information Act applications, divulge that three local councils in Somerset asked for £750,000 to fund a planning officer and legal advice from companies that want to build nuclear power stations in their areas, raising questions about conflicts of interest, and that the officially neutral NDA considered coming out in favour of new reactors.

Soot reduction 'could help to stop global warming'

Cutting one of humanity's most common pollutants would have immediate cooling effect, Nasa claims
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment EditorSunday, 4 January 2009

Governments could slow global warming dramatically, and buy time to avert disastrous climate change, by slashing emissions of one of humanity's most familiar pollutants – soot – according to Nasa scientists. A study by the space agency shows that cutting down on the pollutant, which has so far been largely ignored by climate scientists, can have an immediate cooling effect – and prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths from air pollution at the same time.
At the beginning of the make-or-break year in international attempts to negotiate a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the soot removal proposal – which is being taken seriously by experts close to the Obama administration – offers hope of a rapid new way of tackling global warming. Governments have long experience in acting against soot.
Cutting its emissions has a virtually instantaneous effect, because it rapidly falls out of the atmosphere, unlike carbon dioxide which remains there for over a hundred years. And because soot is one of the worst killers among all pollutants, radical reductions save lives and so should command popular and political support.
The study – from Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics – concludes that tackling the pollution provides "substantial benefits for air quality while simultaneously contributing to climate change mitigation" and "may present a unique opportunity to engage parties and nations not yet fully committed to climate change mitigation for its own sake."
Black carbon, the component of soot that gives it its colour, is thought to be the second largest cause of global warming after carbon dioxide. Formed through incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, wood and vegetation, it delivers a double whammy.
While in the air, it is spread around the globe by the wind, and helps to heat the atmosphere by absorbing and releasing solar radiation. And when it falls out it darkens snow and ice, at the poles or high in mountains, reducing its ability to reflect sunlight. As a result it melts more quickly, and exposes more dark land or water which absorbs even more energy, and so increases warming.
The bad news – as the Washington-based Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development points out – is that soot is causing global warming to happen much faster than expected. Its president, Durwood Zaelke, says "black carbon is exacerbating the climate situation": "Taking quick action is quite simply our only near-term option."
Rich countries have already reduced their emissions of black carbon from burning fossil fuels dramatically since the 1950s. The health benefits of a worldwide cut could be massive. Soot contains up to 40 different cancer-causing chemicals and can also cause respiratory and heart diseases. It is estimated to cause two million deaths in the developing world each year – mainly among children – when emitted from wood-burning stoves in poorly ventilated houses. In Britain, research has shown that people are twice as likely to die from respiratory disease when heavily exposed to soot emitted from vehicle exhausts.
Tackling these two health crises, the Nasa study concludes, would also be the most effective short-term way of slowing climate change. Its research shows that the "strongest leverage" on reducing global warming would be achieved by "reducing emissions from domestic fuel burning" in developing countries, particularly in Asia, and by "reduction in surface transport emissions in North America", especially from diesel engines.
In both cases solutions are known. Cookers using solar energy or biogas, for example, eliminate smoke. And last month California brought in measures to force trucks to fit filters to reduce diesel soot emissions by 85 per cent, estimating that they would save 9,400 lives over the next 16 years.

War passes: the climate is for ever

We humans are better at dealing with crises than long-term problems. The future could judge us harshly
Sunday, 4 January 2009

This is arguably the first week of the most important year in human history. The grandiose invites suspicion so that sentence was written reluctantly. Ideas do not seek permission before they enter your mind, nor are they always the most welcome of guests.
This idea was prompted by the new year headlines. War and recession, tragically familiar sources of human misery, dominated. Yet it was what was missing from them that provoked my unwelcome thought. In December, a meeting on an issue far more important to the future prosperity and security of everyone on earth will take place in Copenhagen. Yet, nowhere did its prospects make the front pages. Terrible though they are, war and recession pass. Climate change is for ever.
The reason is the unique nature of the climate problem. We know that climate change is a threat to the fragile film of order we humans have built around the chaos of events and call "civilisation". We know, because Europe's political leaders told us, that a rise in global average temperature of more than two degrees Celsius is dangerous. We know from our scientists that greenhouse gas emissions must be moving downwards globally by 2015 if we are to have any chance at all of staying within that limit.
Once a given concentration of carbon is in the atmosphere the climate it drives is inexorable even if it takes decades or more to fully express itself. In the most literal sense, the sins of the fathers will be visited on their sons and daughters and well beyond the third and fourth generation.
We humans do not learn easily. We try and fail and try again. Our progress is incremental. We are prone to repeating mistakes. We are content to let the future redeem the mistakes of the present. Climate change does not suit us. We have little experience with the irrevocable and dislike exacting time limits. The nature of the climate is such that the future cannot redeem today's mistakes. We have one chance to reach a political agreement to reduce global carbon emissions in time to stay safe. This is the year in which we take that chance.
Compared with the diplomatic effort needed to achieve success in Copenhagen, that required for a final settlement in the Middle East is small. But there is no sign that an effort on the required scale is yet being made. Compare the amount of media coverage, and intensity of political effort, given to the Middle East to that accorded to climate change.
This is not to diminish in any way the magnitude of that tragedy nor to argue that less should be done to address it. It is, rather, to point out the classic human error of allowing the more immediate to obscure the more urgent. History does not have an agenda on which items can be prioritised. Either you deal with the events it throws at you or they deal with you.
None of the leaders will want to come away from Copenhagen saying they failed to solve a problem they have recognised as the most serious facing humanity. But the appearance of success will be easier to achieve than the substance. It will consist of words and the less the success the more interpretable the words.
To get emissions on a downward path by 2015, 200 nations must agree to so coordinate their energy policies as to build a carbon neutral global energy system by 2050. This will require the greatest cooperative endeavour in history. Agreement in Copenhagen is the key to the lock on the door to that 40-year endeavour. The political conditions needed to turn that key are not yet there. We have this year to build them.
US president-elect Barack Obama has pointed the way by proposing a stimulus package that will deliver economic, energy and climate security together. If in the European Union and China stimulus packages are similarly well designed then $1.5 trillion (£1 trillion) will be spent in ways which will begin the transition to a low-carbon energy system.
Most of the world has played a far smaller part than the countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in creating the problem. Their reluctance to act is understandable, if unwise. Without significant financial help from the OECD countries to meet the cost of adapting to climate change, and to help with building low-carbon economies, they will be unable to support the necessary agreement. We are talking tens of billions not millions.
Words will matter too. But the words that will count most are those of political leaders not official negotiators. Count the number of times a month presidents and foreign ministers are in the media talking about climate change. Note the number of times they hold press conferences on the issue. If they are not going up month by month, we are failing.
Climate change is a bad problem that is getting worse. Pretty soon it will become unmanageable. We already have both the technology and the capital to solve this problem. What is uncertain, and will be determined this year, is whether we have the political will to do so.
I grew up in a world engaged in another long-term, large-scale cooperative endeavour. It spent billions of dollars on building weapons it hoped never to use. When they became obsolete it threw them away and built even more sophisticated and expensive weapons which it hoped never to use. We did that for 50 years. Eventually the world did become safer. The threat of climate change to the prosperity, security and well-being of everyone on the planet, especially anyone under 40, is far more certain than was the threat of the Cold War going hot. Maintaining climate security in the 21st century will require at least as big an effort as maintaining peace did in the late 20th century.
Tom Burke is a co-founder of E3G and a visiting professor at Imperial and University colleges, London

Apple 'not green enough', says Dell

Published Date: 04 January 2009
By Bill Magee

TECHNOLOGY giant Dell has taken the unusual step of attacking Apple over its "green credentials" which it claims leave the creator of the iPhone wanting.
The bust up involving the two global firms signals just how much the environment and "clean tech" investments will dominate business and commerce in the coming year, according to experts.A survey by Gartner, the IT analysts and intelligence group, places the development of green policies in the top three of executives' revenue-raising priorities for 2009. Gartner research analyst Rakesh Kumar said such issues are fast becoming a requirement as the economic downturn calls for more efficiency on energy use at work.The broadside from Dell, which claimed its operations reached carbon-neutral status about six months ago, was launched by Bob Pearson, vice-president, in a company blog. In the blog he accused Apple of using environmentalism as a PR stunt."Several Dell folks were surprised and perplexed to see Apple's new 'green' MacBook advertisements since its release last month," he said. "We wish they would be more bold in making a difference rather than making ads."Pearson accused Apple of not being "open and transparent" in its efforts to protect the environment and failing to set itself any energy-efficiency goals.Eric Krangel, of the Silicon Alley Insider website, said: "It's smart for Dell to be touting its green computing efforts. It's one way to woo environmentally sensitive consumers away from rivals like Hewlett Packard."Dell looks set to redefine its laptop family with the launch of its Adamo range of ultra-portable lap tops to challenge Apple's ultra-thin MacBooks which may be shown to the world as early as the four-day International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, starting on Thursday.Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT, said there remained a market for a competitively-priced laptop despite the economy being in the doldrums.In terms of green issues, a global market related to everyone's "carbon footprint" is on track to top £75bn. Investments of a green hue are now bigger than either the biotechnology or software sectors.Kevin Park, a director of Sunnyside Consulting, an Aberdeen-based IT expert, claimed it is Scottish companies and organisations which think more "clean tech" in their everyday work activities which will stand out in a fiercely competitive marketplace.He said: "They can meet their green aspirations and improve vital cashflow by use of online options rather than buying in hardware, for example, by taking advantage of carbon-neutral datacentres."Meanwhile, current clean tech innovations are taking many forms, from wood-to-biofuel fired cars, a "power shirt" generating electricity from the wearer's movement, to solar panels that work in the dark. James Murray of BusinessGreen, the online advisory body, points to studies showing a doubling of European green and ethical investments over the past three years with no let up in spending expected.

Government eco-town proposals receive fresh blow

The Government's flagship eco-town strategy has suffered another damaging blow after an independent report said one of the proposed towns was "unworkable".

By Patrick Sawer Last Updated: 11:00PM GMT 03 Jan 2009

The Pennbury plan for a 12,000 home development near Leicester is one of 12 shortlisted by ministers as part of their plans to build a string of environmentally sustainable new towns across the country.
But a leading consultancy on urban design and planning has damned the Pennbury scheme, submitted by the Co-operative supermarket and property group, as economically "unsustainable", "ambiguous" and "fundamentally weak".
The Halcrow Group, which was commissioned by four local authorities covering Leicester and the surrounding towns and villages to assess the Co-op's plans, said the new town was likely to produce fewer jobs than envisaged, would suffer from poor transport links and would be out of keeping in what is currently a rural setting.
The report's findings are another major setback for the Government's eco-town proposals, which have already been widely condemned by opponents as threatening the green field character of many sites for little if any environmental or economic benefit.
The strategy has been beset by problems since it was placed at the heart of Labour's policy agenda by Gordon Brown at his first party conference as leader in September 2007.
A shortlist of 15 was cut to 12 after developers dropped out and schemes were reconsidered. The final list of 10 is expected to be announced shortly.
The schemes will then go through the normal planning process. But there are growing doubts over the viability of several of the schemes in the wake of the worsening housing crash.
Eco-towns, which will contain between 5,000 and 20,000 homes, are intended to be carbon neutral and act as an "exemplar" for environmentally-friendly development.
Each must contain at least 30 per cent "affordable" housing, while properties must be on average only a 10-minute walk away from public transport and local services, such as doctors' surgeries and primary schools. At least one person in each household should be able to get to work without a car.
However, the Government admitted in November that only one of the 12 sites being considered is officially ranked as "generally suitable" for an eco-town.
Rackheath, in Norfolk, was judged to be Grade A because it was near Norwich and a working railway line.
The vast majority of the schemes, including Pennbury, were judged to be Grade B – which meant they "might be a suitable location subject to meeting specific planning and design objectives".
But the new report on Pennbury casts doubt on this.
It states: "The Co-op have at this stage in the planning process provided insufficient information to support the Pennbury proposal at this moment. We have serious reservations at this stage that neither the required transport infrastructure, nor the level of jobs required can actually be delivered.
"Both the economic strategy and transport proposals should therefore be substantially revised, as these are fundamental to the overall sustainability of the concept."
Dr Kevin Feltham, a Leicestershire county councillor and a campaigner against the scheme, said: "This report has left the Co-op's plans for Pennbury in tatters. The time is now ripe for them to withdraw their bid in the face of overwhelming evidence that the plans are unworkable."
The report's findings are a particular blow to the Pennbury scheme because Halcrow's consultants said it could have brought potential benefits to the region "in terms of new jobs, homes, community facilities and infrastructure, as well as pioneering new approaches to zero carbon living".
But it said the plans "are not matched by sufficiently detailed commitments and proposals to ensure that these objectives can actually be delivered."
It found:
* The Co-op had produced no convincing evidence to support the assumption that 60 per cent of residents would be able to work in the town.
* The planned location has poor transport links, making it unattractive for potential employers and businesses.
* It is unclear from population projections whether there is in fact a need for so many new homes in the area.
* There has been no survey of local environmental features such as ecology, landscape and cultural heritage.
However, the Co-operative Group defended its proposals, claiming the Halcrow report recognised the potential benefits of the Pennbury eco-town.
Ruairidh Jackson, its head of planning and property strategy, said: "We are in close discussions with Leicester Regeneration Company about the benefits our proposals offer and to improve the regeneration potential of the city as a whole. This story goes far wider than simply employment. It's about education and skills, about helping regeneration sites to come forward, about housing in the city, about unlocking public transport investment and, not least, about helping Leicester to market and promote itself to additional sources of investment.
"Our proposals are fully complementary to these objectives and we believe that we can help Leicester to be an even stronger and more successful city."
The four councils who commissioned the report - Harborough District, Oadby & Wigston Borough, Leicestershire County and Leicester City – are themselves split on the question of the eco-town. Leicestershire County opposes the scheme and has accused Leicester City, which backs it, of being "too easily bought" by the promise of £5 million from the Co-op to carry out a feasibility study into running a tram from Pennbury into Leicester city centre. Harborough and Oadby have yet to decide whether they support the plans.

EU pesticides ban will 'wipe out' carrot crop

Caroline Davies
The Observer, Sunday 4 January 2009

Britain's £300m carrot industry could be "wiped out" under new pesticide regulations set to be agreed by the European Union, say farmers and government advisers.
Despite opposition from Britain, EU ministers are set to agree a reduction in the number of herbicide and fungicide sprays licensed for use, a move that could lead to the collapse of UK carrot farming, which produces more than a million tonnes for the home market each year.
The stark warning is contained in a report from the Pesticides Safety Directorate, which warns that because most currently approved herbicides would no longer be available "there was potential for up to 100% yield loss on carrots". Potatoes, onions and parsnips would also be seriously affected, with a 20% fall in crop yields for cereals.
Martin Evans, chairman of the British Carrot Growers' Association, said: "It's going to wipe us out. It will devastate UK production. It's just not sustainable."
The National Farmers' Union has called on members to lobby MEPs. The proposals are set to be voted on by the European Parliament in the week beginning 12 January and endorsed by the agriculture council by the end of the month.
In a letter to the Crop Protection Association, Gordon Brown said the ban could damage production without securing meaningful benefits for health or the environment.
The UK government disagrees with the proposal to ban pesticides on the basis of "hazard" rather than "risk". Any chemical classified as a hazard to human health is banned, while under a risk-based assessment such chemicals would be allowed provided there was no significant impact on human health. Anti-pesticide campaigners see the proposals as a significant move forward and claim that the ban will not be imposed overnight, so there is time for safer products to be developed.
A spokesman from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs said the proposal "could have significant impacts on agriculture and horticulture without achieving any clear benefits for consumers".
A study commissioned by the Crop Protection Association on the effect on prices predicted the cost of potatoes will double, bread will go up by 9p a loaf, pork chops will increase by 40p a kg and a carton of milk will cost an extra 3p a litre.

EU denounces socialite’s carbon offset project

Michael Gillard and Mark Olden

A PIONEERING climate change project in Africa run by Robin Birley, the socialite, has been accused by the European commission, its main donor, of making unsubstantiated claims about its environmental impact.
The project has received more than £1m in public grants and money from celebrities in the music and film business. They include Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and Brad Pitt, the actor.
The project attempts to offset an individual’s carbon footprint by paying poor farmers in Mozambique to plant trees, which absorb CO2, and to protect existing forests.
The commission’s criticism comes amid increased concern about the worth of these fashionable but largely unregulated carbon offset schemes. Critics say it is almost impossible to guarantee that the trees will survive the length of time needed to offset any significant carbon emissions.

Birley, the stepbrother of Zac Goldsmith, the environmentalist, set up the N’hambita Community Carbon project five years ago in partnership with Edinburgh University.
His company, Envirotrade, manages it and sells “carbon credits” to the public, while the university monitors the emission levels and the deforestation rates.
The project, based on the edge of the Gorongosa national park, had promised to bring “enormous and positive social, economic and environmental change to the developing world”.
However, The Sunday Times has obtained a highly critical report from the European commission that says “the quality of the technical work … [is] far below what could reasonably be expected of a pilot project managed by a university”.
Written last May, just before the five-year funding period came to an end, the report noted that the project “continued to make positive claims about its impact that could not be substantiated”.
The commission also warned that the money flowing into the Gorongosa area had attracted hundreds of poor farmers who were now cutting down trees, contrary to the project’s intention.
An official source said: “We also asked for disclosure about carbon trades in the interest of transparency. None of this information was forthcoming. [Envirotrade] are selling products that are not delivering what was promised and the public needs to know.”
The commission, which has so far donated Euros 1.13m (£1.07m) to the project, does not suggest there has been any dishonesty. However, it felt that the scientific concerns raised with the project since May 2006 remained unaddressed. Consequently, in October 2007 it suspended payment of the last instalment of the grant, worth Euros 453,000. Both the company and Edinburgh University say they will respond to all the criticism in a report they are writing for the commission.
In a statement, Birley said that all the money raised so far from selling carbon credits — £750,000 — has gone back into the project and he has also invested his own money.
He added that the project’s “well intentioned shortcomings” were to be expected with such a challenging idea and Envirotrade had been transparent with all its clients.
However, one of the commission’s main concerns was about the way carbon credits are being sold when it is difficult to verify the amount of emissions actually saved.
Despite this, Envirotrade has sold a further £100,000 worth of carbon credits since it received the report.
A Sunday Times reporter approached the company posing as a businessman who wanted to offset his family’s carbon footprint for Christmas by investing £20,000 in the N’hambita project. The reporter was put in touch with Philip Powell, a South African and the company’s project manager.
He boasted that the project had already made massive carbon emission savings of 380,000 tons, but did not mention how public funding had been frozen because the commission felt that after five years the project had limited scientific evidence to verify this claim.
Powell also spoke of a relationship with Hollywood’s powerful Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which represents Brad Pitt. He said Pitt had invested through CAA, who in turn paid the project £150,000 to become carbon neutral.
However, Powell, 44, who now lives in Wetherby, Yorkshire, was less forthcoming about his past work for the apartheid regime.
In 1998, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which examined apartheid era abuses, found that Powell, a former security branch officer, had been involved in “a conspiracy to commit gross violations of human rights.”
According to the TRC, Powell trained and secretly armed an Inkatha paramilitary unit involved in destabilising South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Powell confirms he is the same man but denies being part of any death squad or having ever incited any of his trainees to kill.
In 2000, he left South Africa for the UK, amid calls from the ANC that he should be prosecuted for treason. Two years later, he formed Envirotrade with Birley, who is the majority shareholder.
During the first three years of the N’hambita project, Birley was also running Annabel’s, the uppercrust London nightspot founded by his father in 1963. The club is named after Birley’s mother, who went on to marry billionaire entrepreneur Sir James Goldsmith.
In 2006, Birley, 50, left the club after admitting to his sister that he had paid a private detective to spy on her lover. Since his father’s death in 2007, Birley has been fighting a legal battle with his sister over the estimated £100m estate.
In a statement to The Sunday Times, Professor John Grace of Edinburgh University’s Geosciences department said: “We are working hard on improving the project all the time. The studies have been done. Of course we will provide all the required information in our final report, which we are working on now.”

Heathrow train plan to allay environmental fears

Isabel Oakeshott and Chris Gourlay

AN international rail interchange could be built at Heathrow to compensate for the environmental harm caused by a new third runway at the airport, the transport minister Lord Adonis has indicated.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Adonis said the government was enthusiastic about proposals for a £4.5 billion station called the Heathrow hub, which could slash more than two hours off train journeys from some British cities to European destinations.
Supporters of the scheme say it would extend the high-speed European rail network, which currently stops at London, north to benefit the rest of Britain.
The hub, which would be the country’s largest railway station, was first proposed as an alternative to the third runway by the Tories, who argued that the extra capacity needed at Heathrow could be shifted on to rail rather than air.

Now, in a surprise move, the government appears ready to embrace both projects. It could use the new railway station’s environmental credentials as a “sweetener” for giving a polluting third runway the go-ahead.
It would enable far more passengers to travel by train rather than car to the airport and enable some to ditch the plane altogether for travelling to Europe.
Adonis said: “I think that it’s an attractive idea. It’s vital that we have an integrated approach to planning new rail capacity and any new airport capacity that’s also required.”
The Heathrow hub would link a new high-speed London-Scotland railway line to cities on the continent.
Adonis said: “The key issue on the hub is whether the north-south line would also serve Heathrow and therefore offer much better interchange facilities at Heathrow and the capacity to get to and from Heathrow much more rapidly and conveniently from other parts of the country.”
In a strong hint that all three projects — the 200mph north-south line, the Heathrow hub, and a third runway – could be developed together, he said: “It makes good sense to plan improvements to Heathrow and the rail system together.”
Cities that could benefit most include Birmingham, from where passengers could reach Paris by train 2hr 45min more quickly than now, and Manchester, where the saving would be even more.
The disclosure that ministers are seriously considering the hub comes as Downing Street issued its strongest hint yet that it would give the go-ahead to the third runway.
A spokesman highlighted “a decision” on the scheme as an example of how the government is “making investment in transport to ensure our infra-structure is fit for the needs of the 21st century”.
Adonis refused to be drawn on the decision, but brushed off evidence that Labour could lose marginal seats in the flight-path area if the third runway gets the go-ahead. Indicating that Labour is ready to “take the hit” in constituencies opposed to the project, Adonis said the decision would have to be “based on legal and transport implications”.
Boris Johnson, the London mayor, has announced, however, that he will hold a last-minute public debate on the runway plan on January 21 at which opponents will make a final effort to press their case.
Plans for the hub, drawn up by Arup, the engineering consultancy, have already been presented to the Department for Transport. They envisage a 12-platform station built on the northern boundary of Heathrow, operating direct high-speed services to the continent and cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Bristol.
Existing lines, such as the Great Western main line from London to Bristol, would be diverted through the station, providing direct connections to the airport from the west, southwest, Wales and the Midlands. The hub would be linked around London to the existing Eurostar line.
However, Theresa Villiers, the shadow transport secretary, said: “A new rail hub at Heathrow should be an alternative to a third runway not a sweetener for it.”
Adonis also said in his interview that the government was considering a new network of stations along key routes, designed to encourage drivers to switch part of their journey to rail.

BAA emission controls fail to halt airport breaching pollution limits

Jon Ungoed-Thomas

BAA, the airport operator, has failed to control pollution levels around Heathrow while pushing for a third runway and more flights.
New figures reveal that last year air quality broke the government’s own pollution target despite initiatives by BAA to curb hazardous emissions. It means European Union legal limits will almost certainly be breached when they are brought in next year.
The annual mean average level of nitrogen dioxide, a key pollutant that can cause respiratory problems, was 52 micrograms per cubed metre, according to data from an air pollution detector near the perimeter fence. The tougher EU legal limit — and the current government target – is 40 micrograms per cubed metre.
The data are a significant setback for Gordon Brown who faces a growing backbench rebellion over the airport’s expansion. A decision is expected on the third runway this month.

Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, said in a Sunday Times interview last month that failing to hit the EU’s pollution targets was “not something that we can contemplate”. He is also concerned about the increase in carbon emissions that will be caused by a runway.
Transport officials and BAA insist their modelling shows they can build a third runway and dramatically increase the number of flights by 2020 without breaching the EU’s legal limits. But the fresh data raise questions about the credibility of that claim.
Five air pollution detectors monitor nitrogen dioxide in the area around Heathrow. Of these, three failed to meet the government’s own target in 2008. In addition to the high reading at the pollution detector near Heathrow’s perimeter fence, a monitoring site near the M4 had an annual mean average of 49 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubed metre, while another site at Hillingdon had an annual mean average of 43.
The lack of progress in restricting the levels of nitrogen dioxide, despite advances in technology, will be worrying for ministers. The Heathrow monitoring site has consistently recorded levels of nitrogen dioxide between 52 and 55 micrograms per cubed metre over the past five years.
The government has already said it intends to apply to the EU for additional time to meet the nitrogen dioxide targets. Ministers hope to comply with the targets by 2015.
Edward Lister, leader of Wandsworth council, said: “These figures prove BAA cannot control air pollution at Heathrow. A third runway or additional flights would increase these breaches and inflict even greater harm on the environment.”
Ministers were due to announce a decision on a third runway last summer, but faced with growing opposition twice deferred the announcement. The cabinet is said to be split.
A BAA spokesman said the company had introduced a wide range of measures to improve air quality, and pollution levels were improving overall.
The spokesman said: “We want to give the public confidence that Heathrow will only expand if the limits on air quality are being met. If, as we have requested, the government appoints an independent assessor, then the public can have confidence that if, for any reason, the limits are not being met, then the number of flights in and out of Heathrow will be limited.”