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Trapped by politics

Fresh delays in airport expansion decision.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced yesterday a new delay in the decision on expanding aviation capacity in the South East of England. Miguel Coelho looks at how political tactics continue to delay important decisions.

Echoing the Prime Minister’s statement earlier in the week, McLoughlin confirmed that no decision will be made before next summer. This is the latest episode in multiple decades of political dithering. The Transport Secretary says the delay is to allow for a new study of environmental impacts, including air quality, noise and carbon pollution (which we would have expected to have been addressed as part of the Davies Commission). But it has been claimed the delay is actually intended to keep the issue out of next May’s mayoral elections, defusing a row with the Conservative London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith. Before that, the setting up of the Airports Commission in 2012 to look at policy options for expansion was widely seen as an attempt by the previous coalition government to bury the issue beyond the 2015 general election. This fresh delay epitomises many of the problems in the British political system that we discussed in detail in a report on the political economy of policy failure. While the Westminster model is supposed to support strong, decisive governments, in practice, successive governments have struggled to reconcile national and local interests. They have also failed to foster informed debates about policy options and, as a result, have been involved in endless political prevarication. Decades of tortuous political debate and inaction around an extra runway at Heathrow is one of the most emblematic examples of political procrastination. Every government from Labour to the current Conservatives have failed to take decisive action. There is an important lesson here for the recently created National Infrastructure Commission. The most important role for independent expertise in decisions around infrastructure is not to pinpoint allegedly ‘optimal’ solutions, but rather to engage the people and organisations that will actually be affected by these decisions and offer policy makers a sound and comprehensive evidence base with which to analyse the trade-offs of different policy options. Otherwise we risk continuing this cycle of short-term political tactics, which fail to provide long-term solutions for deep-seated problems in the UK economy.

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