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Heathrow – the cycle of political procrastination has to end

Emma Norris says this underlines the huge problem politics poses for infrastructure decision making

After hinting that the UK was set to have new runways announced in Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham, the final decision on where to build new airport capacity is delayed by another year. Emma Norris says this underlines the huge problem politics poses for infrastructure decision making.

Yesterday’s announcement is the latest chapter in decades of political procrastination on airport capacity in London. Although Theresa May will announce the Government’s ‘preferred location’ for a new runway next week, there will not be a parliamentary vote for at least a year.

This is a stark contrast to the decisive action rumoured last week that runways not just in Heathrow, but also in Gatwick and Birmingham would be given the green light. And it starts to invite accusations of indecision, particularly given the existing raft of policy ‘pauses’, already on the books.

But the most striking part of the announcement was that collective cabinet responsibility would be suspended during the year-long consultation – giving opponents of a new runway at Heathrow, notably Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, a chance to maintain their opposition to the decision.

This gets to the heart of what is holding up airport expansion: politics.

While the Westminster model is supposed to support strong, decisive governments, successive governments have struggled to reconcile national and local interests – particularly when it comes to infrastructure. Politicians whose constituencies are likely to be blighted by new runways are unlikely to support them.

Institutions are one way through this fog – but not one that government is always good at using. The establishment of an independent Airports Commission was intended to secure cross-party consensus over the issue by 2015. But the commission’s recommendation for a third runway at Heathrow was instead paused to allow for a new study of environmental impacts  (and to keep the issue out of the 2016 London Mayoral Election).

The issue of whether we have the right institutions to make infrastructure decisions has further brought into question with the weakening of the National Infrastructure Commission. Originally intended to be completely independent and on a statutory footing, just last week it was announced that the commission will in fact be an executive agency of HM Treasury. This will certainly limit its ability to hold government’s feet to the fire.

Another way to tackle the politics is to foster informed public debates about the issues. The most important role for independent expertise in decisions around infrastructure is not just to pinpoint ‘optimal’ solutions, but to engage people that will actually be affected by these decisions and offer a sound and comprehensive evidence base with which to analyse the trade-offs of different policy options. The Heathrow decision is already well behind on this after decades of failing to have the right kind of conversation – but the one upside of the latest delay is that it gives time for informed public discussion.

For advice on how to do this now and in the future, we should look to our European neighbours. In the Netherlands, the ‘Alders-table’ was successful at creating a space where national and municipal governments, representatives of the local communities, and the parties involved in aviation were drawn together to discuss solutions for expanding Schiphol airport. In France, the ‘National Commission of Public Debate’, a state-funded, independent body, has played an important role in ensuring the public participates in decision making about projects that have major effects on the environment and land use.

It is now 13 years since the then-Labour Government gave its backing to a new runway at Heathrow and yet a final decision is still being dodged. Decisions on airport expansion – along with high speed rail, housing and other difficult infrastructure issues – will never be straightforward. They are high-risk, capital intensive projects where long-term costs and benefits are highly uncertain, and there will always be losers. But these debates need to be less adversarial and more deliberative. Unless government can build and sustain institutions in which productive debate can flourish, politics will likely continue to disrupt, delay and toxify the decision making process.

And even with the best process possible, there is unlikely to be a perfect political moment to make decisions that involve losers as well as winners. It is always easier to kick the can down the road. At some point, the Prime Minister just needs to get on with it.

Political party
Conservative Labour
Prime minister
May government
English Regions
Greater London
Institute for Government

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