Putting airports policy into commission
The track record is not promising. Previous attempts to use outsiders to solve planning dilemmas have not worked that well â€“ Kate Barkerâ€™s review of the planning system failed to change much â€“ and the government spent eight months wrangling over the new National Planning Policy Framework despite asking outsiders to produce the first draft. The last government tried to take ministers out of major planning decisions and leave final decisions to a quango (the Infrastructure Planning Commission) â€“ but that move was reversed by the Coalition on taking power. Many â€“ including the Chancellor â€“ still see the planning system as a brake on growth.
But if the government can find someone prepared to catch this particular hot potato, the new chair and the government would do well to look at lessons from some previous reviews, like Turner. Some starters for ten:
â€¢ Donâ€™t do it alone. Single reviewers (like Barker) tend to be much weaker than three or five people commissions. The Turner review had three commissioners who had credibility from the different interest groups.
â€¢ Get the evidence out first. It is probably too much to expect people to agree â€“ but a commission could play a hugely valuable role in establishing whether hub airports are key enablers of growth; how much mitigation of environmental impacts is possible etc â€“ to establish a framework for looking at the alternative options. Turner used its long timetable to frame (and reframe) the problem and get agreement on what the evidence said.
â€¢ Engage the public. Roadshows and public deliberation were key elements of the Turner approach which went in for very active stakeholder engagement. The challenge for anyone taking on aviation policy is to get people to see beyond their own very immediate concerns and take a more rounded view. That takes time and is not easy.
â€¢ Give the commission time. Bizarrely the Government seems to see a decision on future aviation as a way out of recession. It may be â€“ but only if the economy is still in intensive care in the 2020s. All the processes outlined above need some time if they are going to be effective. Forcing a rush to solutions risks undermining the ability of the process to deliver a way forward.
â€¢ Let the commission come up with a package. Both Turner and Browne came up with carefully constructed packages designed to balance competing interests. A Turner principle was that there were benefits but also costs for individual groups. For example, Turner proposed that automatic enrolment in a second pension for employees and linking the state pension to earnings not prices â€“ but that they would have to wait longer for that pension. Creating a new bargain to compensate potential losers from airport expansion will be critical to making progress.
â€¢ But donâ€™t then go à la carte. The danger then is that the government picks the bits it likes and forgets about the elements it is less keen on. In the case of the Browne review, the subsequent negotiations in the Coalition amended key elements in his plan, without asking whether the whole still added up.
â€¢ And make sure it is genuinely independent. If the public think a commission is just a political device to allow a cabinet minister to stay in post and is designed to come up with the answer the Treasury has already thought of, then it will retard rather than advance policy making. If the government has not got an open mind, then just make the decision and live with the consequences.