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Party political journeys
Business Travel World – November 2007

A new prime minister, conference fever and a phantom election have forced the major political parties to show their hand on a number of policies. Mark Smulian looks at what they have in mind for business travel

Business travel will almost certainly be dragged into controversy at the next general election, when it eventually comes, even if no leading politician directly mentions the subject.

Whatever happens though, an election is unlikely to resolve the environmental, planning, transport and aviation issues that affect business travel, because their long-term nature means they are not open to rapid change. This Parliament, and probably those for years to come, will still see these topics firmly on a political agenda that will shape many of the choices business travel buyers make.

It is already possible to see the start of a political consensus on a switch of investment from air to rail, and limits on flights within the UK and to Eurostar destinations to encourage passengers to use trains, so relieving the pressure for airport expansion.

A decade ago the environment was of interest only to a political fringe, and mainstream politicians supported expansion of aviation, airports and international travel without inciting any serious opposition.

But as public concern grew about climate change and, in some areas, airport expansion, the reverse has happened - politicians now incur public hostility if they fail to criticise the limitless expansion of travel.

It has been business travel's bad luck to be dragged into this argument as a side effect of the rapid expansion of leisure flying in the wake of the low-cost carrier revolution.

More aircraft than ever take to the skies just as the media has become filled with stories about global warming and the contribution transport emissions make to that.

Businesses have come under pressure from customers to demonstrate that they know their carbon footprint and are reducing it, including through their travel policies. Even three or so years ago the term 'carbon offset' was almost unknown beyond specialists; nowadays airlines offers it on their websites.

The travel industry has to react. Philip Carlisle, chief executive of the Guild of Travel Management Companies, says: "Business needs to travel, and if it travels less the UK will become less competitive.

"I think we could expect clients to ask TMCs to report on carbon usage and on better ways to achieve the same results.

"It could be that if a business has a meeting with a lot of people from different places it might make sense to convene somewhere other than the head office, and that routine internal meetings might be dropped, but business people still need to see clients face to face to negotiate deals or solve problems."

Carlisle says the industry cannot be seen to engage in special pleading, but the guild would "make sure that our influence is used so that aviation is not held up as the baddie, when many of the problems are not caused by aviation, or by travel at all".

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, appears often on television as an election pundit explaining what is going on beneath the raw data of voting figures. He thinks the explanation for the sudden priority accord to green issues by politicians is very simple.

"Just look at the floods in July and you will see why there is public acceptance of the idea that human activity affects climate change and that carbon dioxide emissions are harmful," he says.

"The scientific consensus on this has been accepted by the public, and aviation has become a bte noire for the green lobby."

Curtice says this is not down to business travel but the enormous increase in leisure flying.

"Even 20 years ago getting on an aircraft was still something quite special but now it is not. The change has led to increased emissions and it's noticeable." Politicians have both carrots and sticks at their disposal to change public behaviour and, unsurprisingly, both they and the public prefer carrots. This makes it unlikely that business travellers will face direct restrictions on their journeys. But there could be incentives for them to take a train rather than a flight within the UK and north-west Europe, for example, or hire a smaller, more fuel efficient, car.

Curtice says: "Evidence suggests people like carrots but they don't like sticks, so they would not like a rise in VAT on aviation fuel. But if you say there is a surcharge to improve the railways they start to get the idea.

"If you drive a smaller car and so get a discount on your licence fee people like that, but they object to higher petrol tax."

Just how much public enthusiasm for the environment can wilt in the face of 'sticks' was demonstrated by an episode that still haunts the government. There was an annual increase in petrol tax until enraged lorry drivers nearly brought the country to a standstill in September 2000 and the government backed down.

"Gordon Brown has given general comments that he would take tougher measures, but the government has been frightened off increased fuel taxes ever since the protest. They were left bloodied and bruised by the experience," Curtice says.

He thinks long-term any government would hope to avoid unpopular measures through technological fixes, such as a switch to non-polluting hydrogen fuels.

Meanwhile, the political parties have been thinking about how to address public concern for the environment without proposing anything that would damage Britain's business competitiveness or enrage voters by limiting their travel options.

And while politicians usually think only one election ahead, they can see that these issues will remain live far into the future and require some creative thinking.

The business travel sector should be alert. Environmental ideas once discarded as absurd - such as London's congestion charge - have a habit of becoming accepted thinking as voters' attitudes change.

Aviation

If aircraft emitted no pollution and made no noise, there would be no public concern about business travel. Until this Utopia arrives, the impact of aircraft on the environment will remain a very live political issue.

Mark Tami, Labour MP for Alyn and Deeside, was the Guild of Travel Management Companies' parliamentary consultant until his promotion to government whip last summer.

He has a close interest in aviation since there is an Airbus factory in his constituency, and he fears that left unchecked environmental politics will hit both the travel and aviation industries.

"The environment has been moving up the political agendas and is now very high," he says. "Cleary it is something for the travel industry in the widest sense to look at carefully because if they do not it will turn round and bite them hard."

He admits that pressure for environmentally friendly policies is growing within Labour but thinks the party will be reluctant to impose any restriction that would damage business competitiveness.

"Concern is growing. You have the Tories and Lib Dems saying you should use taxes to discourage internal flights, and I doubt that would have been the case five years ago, though I do wonder what they would be saying they in power," he says. "But people have to travel, it is essential to the economy and good for business."

As befits an MP with an interest in Airbus, Tami places his faith in technology to reduce aviation's environmental impact.

He says: "UK fleets are pretty modern, so environmentally better. Change will come from more efficient aircraft, not from no aircraft."

There has long been a green lobby among the Conservatives, although its influence was limited when the party was in power. Its best known exponent is former environment secretary John Gummer, who wrote a policy document this autumn, parts of which could have come from the Green Party.

Gummer noted that aviation accounts for only 5% of UK carbon emissions, but is "growing at the fastest rate of any sector".

His report says: "If the trend continues unchecked, aviation will be responsible for at least one-third of the UK's total emissions by 2050," and questions whether this is "really justified when other sectors are planning carbon cuts".

Gummer's preferred solution is to make other modes more attractive where they offer a realistic alternative, using taxes to "signal to the passenger, business and freight communities that choosing lower carbon transport makes financial sense".

He endorses investment in rail, even perhaps new Continental-style high speed lines, "if it provides an alternative to highly polluting domestic flights", with the east and west coast main lines prime candidates for such conversion.

His report argues that 100,000 out of 470,000 annual flights from Heathrow are to destinations that already enjoy a reasonable rail alternative and that investment could make rail a serious contender for this traffic.

Gummer says: "It is absurd that the slots are cheaper for short haul than long haul, when long haul is a better use of the carbon elbow room and there is no rail substitute anyway. Why not make it easier to use alternatives and then reserve slots for those flights where you really have to fly?

"There are 30 or so flights a day from London to Manchester, which are quite unnecessary when one could use the train. Business should push for investment in rail."

The Liberal Democrats have long claimed to be the greenest of the three main parties. Their conference called for a 'future transport fund' to invest in rail the proceeds of a charge on lorries to use motorways and a climate change levy on internal UK flights, except those to remote communities.

The party said this would provide £12bn over 30 years by using the money raised as capital on which to borrow. The party also called for a per-flight rather than per-passenger airline tax, a concept also supported by Gummer.

The party's shadow environment secretary, Chris Huhne, says: "We have to get real about rail, doubling rail investment, building high-speed lines to stop domestic flights, shifting from road to rail, and cutting congestion on our existing rail lines."

Transport secretary Ruth Kelly was more circumspect than her opponents when she addressed Labour's conference, but her thinking was not that far removed.

"We don't have to choose between tackling global warming and supporting economic growth," she said. Kelly said flying should not revert to being "the preserve of a privileged elite" but called for "a European cap on aviation emissions at levels below where we are today, so if people choose to fly, they pay directly for real reductions in emissions elsewhere".

She plans to publish a carbon reduction strategy "which sets out the role that transport will play in reducing harmful CO2 emissions".

The main parties are all wary of the Greens' electoral appeal on this issue, but even they do not want draconian restrictions on business travel.

Darren Johnson, a Green Party London Assembly member, says: "I understand the need for business travel. Even environmental campaigners and scientists have to meet face to face sometimes. But more could be done through video link-ups, and some demand for business trips could be met by better rail lines.

"People will, I hope, think of a low carbon future not a something scary but as something it would actually be good to be part of."

Airports and planning

When one's backyard is west London, what gets built in it affects a lot of people. The 2M group, formed by local councils to fight Heathrow's expansion, claims to speak for two million people who live under flight paths into the airport.

This sort of local pressure - there is a similar campaign against the growth of Stansted airport - feeds through into national politics as MPs' postbags bulge with constituents' complaints.

London is the flashpoint of the battle over airports, and while Labour remains committed to expansion its opponents again exhibit a surprising degree of consensus.

Kelly told the Labour conference that while the government was consulting on the third runway at Heathrow, the airport was "so vital to Britain's international competitiveness and to British jobs", a clear hint of her desired outcome.

Tami argues that expanding airports may be environmentally friendly, because "you can land quicker, instead of circling Heathrow or somewhere waiting for runway space to land".

He adds: "I think we have to bite the bullet on airports. We spend ages and ages at public inquiries, but we need them built faster if they are going to be viable.

"The danger is that people have a bad experience a few times at Heathrow and decide they will hold some business gathering at Frankfurt or Paris instead, and having done it once get into that habit."

Gummer has some sympathy with this: "At Heathrow there is an argument that if it expanded it could be used in a more environmentally friendly way and I am prepared to look at that, but there is no need to expand Stansted or Gatwick if we reduced flying."

His report says scaling back domestic and 'near Europe' flights at Heathrow would free slots for "a shift to the less price-sensitive business and longhaul leisure flights, the categories deemed most advantageous to the UK economy".

This cuts little ice with 2M, whose spokesman says: "Concern about emissions is something new, but it is primarily noise that is the issue. Both sides have scientists who can dispute climate change, but you cannot dispute people saying they are being woken up by aircraft noise.

"We are trying to widen our campaign because if Heathrow expansion if allowed there will be new flight paths over places that get off lightly at present and stacking right out into the Home Counties."

The Lib Dems decided at their conference that they would "rule out major expansion of airports, including a second runway at Stansted and the third runway at Heathrow, [and] retain runway capacity at around the current level and permit the auctioning and secondary trading of airport slots".

Security

Airport security is not a party political issue, despite the uproar caused by long queues and restrictions on luggage and liquids.

Public concern over immigration trumps concern over movement through airports for the political parties, and Labour shows no sign of reducing the restrictions in force.

Both the Tories and Lib Dems oppose Labour's proposed identity cards, on grounds of civil liberty and practicality, and want the money earmarked for them spent instead on an integrated border force.

This would draw together police, customs, immigration and security staff to protect airports and ports.

Details on how such a body would affect travellers are sparse, though the Lib Dems called for the reimposition of exit checks at airports.

Crossrail

Nearly 20 years of concerted political lobbying by business organisations has finally paid off to give business travellers a rapid rail link between Heathrow and the capital's financial centres.

Last month the government gave the go-ahead to the long-delayed £16bn Crossrail project. By 2017 it should link Heathrow Airport, central London, the City and Canary Wharf, with, for example, a promised 43 minutes journey time between Heathrow and Docklands.

And there should be far more people to travel on business. Prime minister Gordon Brown has said Crossrail will pay for itself by cementing London's position as a global financial centre, adding a predicted £20bn to the UK economy by 2026 and supporting 30,000 new jobs.

Crossrail will be designed to take 24 trains an hour at peak times, and over a year would carry some 200m passengers.

The line will start at Maidenhead, follow the existing line to Paddington - joined by a spur to Heathrow - and then be tunnelled under central London. One spur will emerge at Stratford, in what will by then be the midst of post-Olympics regeneration projects, and follow an existing line to Shenfield, Essex.

The other spur will run to Canary Wharf and then to the Royal Docks before crossing the Thames to Woolwich and Abbey Wood, though it may be built later than the other line.

Crossrail is not a free gift to business, since part of the cost will come from a special rate levied on the capital's businesses. This financial model might mean other infrastructure projects can be started more speedily in future.




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