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Tories have taken £291,000 in gifts from airports as Sunak eyes runway U-turn

Donations raise eyebrows with Rishi Sunak expected to reject Climate Change Committee advice on banning expansions

Adam Bychawski
17 September 2023, 10.00am
Heathrow: Tories have accepted over £200,000 in donations in kind from UK airports

Niklas Halle'n - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Airport operators have lavished Britain’s last three prime ministers with VIP services worth more than £200,000 since the 2019 election, analysis by openDemocracy has found.

Liz Truss, Boris Johnson and Theresa May are among the Conservative MPs who have accepted more than £275,000 in donations-in-kind from airport operators, while Conservative Party HQ has also taken more than £13,500 in donations from airport operators.

It comes as the government signals its backing for airport expansions, in contrast with advice from its own climate advisers that adding runways to Heathrow and Gatwick would be incompatible with the UK’s net zero goals. The Department of Transport told openDemocracy it was “supportive of airport expansion where it can be delivered in a sustainable way”.

Peter Barclay, the chair of Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign, said gifts to the Conservative Party were “all part of the industry’s efforts to oil the government machine in their favour”.

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“It makes you very suspicious of politicians,” he said.

Sarah Clayton, coordinator of climate campaign group AirportWatch said: “Rishi Sunak has no interest in the environment, his only interest is keeping the Conservative Party going.

“The airports will use every little trick in the book in order to make sure that the law isn’t changed so they can get their expansion plans through.”

Truss, Johnson and May have accepted tens of thousands of pounds in donations in kind from Heathrow Airport Ltd and Gatwick Airport Ltd in the last four years. Both airports are hoping to open additional runways.

Theresa May alone accepted donations in kind worth more than £183,000 for the use of the VIP Windsor suite at Heathrow Airport a staggering 44 times, according to declarations made on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Heathrow advertises the private suite as a “unique and luxurious service” that includes a chauffeur and dinner prepared by a Michelin starred chef “served by your own personal butler”.

Boris Johnson also used the suite at least 34 times, accepting stays worth £58,000 from the airport, four of them while still in office. In addition, he made use of a VIP suite at Gatwick Airport for him and his family on three occasions after leaving office, a donation in kind worth more than £4,000.

His short-lived successor Liz Truss also made use of VIP suites at Heathrow and Gatwick, accepting 14 stays worth more than £24,000 after resigning as prime minister.

Theresa May accepted donations in kind worth more than £183,000 for the use of the VIP Windsor suite at Heathrow Airport a staggering 44 times

Tory Party HQ also accepted a £12,500 cash donation from London City Airport Ltd just days after it won the 2019 election, according to the Electoral Commission’s records, while Heathrow Airport Ltd made a “non-cash” donation worth the equivalent of £1,680.00 to the party in October 2022. It did not respond to questions about what the donation actually was.

A further six Conservative MPs have accepted gifts worth almost £7,000 in total from London City Airport Ltd since 2019. Orpington MP Gareth Bacon declared in the Register of Members' Financial Interests that he received tickets to sporting fixtures worth £1,849 from the airport last year, which is the closest to his constituency.

Tory MPs Nigel Evans, Robert Neill, Paul Scully, Kevin Hollinrake and Gagan Mohindra also declared that they had accepted tickets to sporting events from the airport.

London City had an application to increase the size of its terminal refused by Newham Council in July, but has appealed the decision.

Operators of British airports including Heathrow and Gatwick, as well as the Airport Operators Association (AOA), also sponsor the Future of Aviation All-Party Parliamentary Group of MPs by donating £10,000 a year to pay for its secretariat.

Karen Dee, the chief executive of AOA, recently wrote that she had been “working with MPs on the Future of Aviation All Party Parliamentary Group to lobby the prime minister and chancellor to allow airports to establish arrivals duty-free stores and to restore VAT-free shopping for international tourists”.

Last month, a report by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) warned that “there should be no airport expansion” if the government is to meet its target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050. The committee was established as part of the 2008 Climate Change Act to hold the government to account over its progress towards reaching net zero.

The campaign group Aviation Environment Federation claims that UK airports’ current expansion plans would result in the number of aviation passengers growing three times higher than the limits advised by the CCC.

Paul McGuinness, chair of the No 3rd Runway Coalition, which campaigns against Heathrow’s expansion plans, said he believed that the gifts airports handed to MPs are “just the thin edge of the wedge.”

He added: “Heathrow’s chief of staff was lifted from the Department for Transport. That department’s director of communications was lifted from Heathrow’s PR office. Heathrow’s current chair was, until recently, a Treasury minister working alongside the transport department.

“They are a private company with 90% foreign shareholders who interact with the UK government like a revolving door on projects that seek to primarily benefit these overseas shareholders and add very little to UK Plc.”

The Conservative Party was approached for comment.

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “With regard to access to the Windsor Suite, we always take a view on how to maintain a safe and efficient operation at the airport. At our discretion, we have the option of providing access to the Windsor Suite where we consider it will make the best use of the airport’s security resources. As the register reflects, the proper reporting procedures have been followed.”

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