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Comment | More infrastructure capacity is vital to a growing industry

Mark Hansford

So Heathrow is a go. Well, a go pending Parliamentary debate, National Policy Statement sign off, legal challenges, planning shenanigans, regulatory agreements and probably a few other hurdles too.

Cynics will say it will never happen. But the soundings from those in charge are resoundingly that it will. And that is a very strong start. Of course, the cynic would say, you’d expect that. But then that cynic would be pointed at the £11bn of investment Heathrow has already made over the last decade, in Terminal 5, Terminal 2 and various other projects besides. This is not an organisation that rests on its laurels. Given the chance to invest and to grow, it invests – and it grows.

So we could be cynical. Or we could also be positive. We could really get behind it and back it. And we must, because it’s going to need that support.

Because the government could easily lose interest in all this. With Brexit discussions looming, frankly it’s got bigger things to worry about. So we, as in industry, must support Heathrow and make sure government’s commitment does not wane. Don’t give it the excuse that the project is not ready to go; that we haven’t solved the conundrum of whether to put the M25 in tunnel or put the runway on a bridge; that we haven’t dealt with the air pollution issue (magnified this month by the High Court’s ruling that government’s plans nationally do not go far enough); that we haven’t dealt with the surface access issue (because there is no denying it, from anywhere other than central London, Heathrow is difficult to get to by public transport).

And let’s be clear: we do need to crack this. The government’s own figures show that the cost to the economy of doing nothing to boost runway capacity is in the region of £50bn to £65bn over the next 60 years. It’s a pressing investment case.

But let’s also be clear: there are many more things equally demanding of our time and energies. Because while Heathrow has dominated the news – and important though it is – it really isn’t our biggest infrastructure priority. That’s according to the National Needs Assessment, the ICE-led, 15-month study into the UK’s infrastructure needs between now and 2050.

Technology-led capacity boosts or demand-management restraints are where the ICE sees the real wins.

Why? Because the assessment recognises that we cannot afford to spend our way out of infrastructure challenges simply by building new capacity. “Nor would that be the smart choice,” it says. “Technology, enabled by the right policies, provides the opportunity to use new and existing infrastructure capabilities much more efficiently,” it adds.

It’s good thinking. Take highways. There’s a very sound argument for using driverless cars to boost capacity; road pricing to manage demand or even electric highways to cut emissions, as is being trialled in Germany.

So we really need to throw our energies into building capability in technology-led solutions. As new ICE president Tim Broyd said in his presidential address: “There is little place in our industry for the intellectually lazy or unenquiring mind”.

So a big yes to technology. But what also of this month’s theme: resilient infrastructure?

The threat from climate change remains that huge elephant in the room. The Needs Assessment observes that disruption from flooding alone costs the UK economy £1bn per year. Or put another way, £60bn over the next 60 years. Or put another way still, flooding is as costly to the economy as the lack of a third runway at Heathrow.

So that too has to be a massively high priority. So yes, let’s make Heathrow happen. Let’s also not forget about using technology to make advances. And, above all, let’s not forget infrastructure resilience.

Readers' comments (2)

  • So the editor is another apologist for expansion at Heathrow, which is a pity because road pricing, water supply security and infrastructure resilience generally, are each points well-made by by him; but not the Heathrow affair. One look at the all-party parliamentary group's report on Heathrow and the wider economy on 7th Sept this year, should illuminate the enormity of the safety case of which not enough has yet been made. Old enough as I am to remember the Munich, Stockport and Staines aircrashes as well as the January 2008 near disaster at Heathrow (BA38 from China), I read the MPs' report with a shudder of despair at the omissions by the Airport Commission, whose chairman admitted to errors of judgement in the past, so how can I be sure his inquiry and report is accurate, resilient or sustainable? Unsurprisingly they never responded to anything I sent them. There is an unpleasant whiff in the air at Heathrow, from both the planes and from the overly-smug executives and investors who see another runway there as their birthright. The stash removed by the early Spanish and later polyglot investors from this asset since BAA was sold to them at a discount, makes the mismanagement at RBS and the costs of HS2 and the overruns at our Olympics look like chickenfeed. There should be no way whatsoever that taxpayers should pay a penny towards Heathrow's upkeep and certainly never contribute to any expansion, although with God and the judiciary willing, it won't happen in my lifetime (not long to wait then!). Whereas Gatwick's owners, who are transparent in their dealings, stand a good chance of delivering airport capacity in the foreseeable future. And so your desire for spades in the ground, or shovels above, can be gratified by a runway at LGW far sooner than at LHR. A final reflection on your article: compare £50billion as an economic benefit over 60 years (sic) with HS2's projected cost over a [projected] shorter time. Focus on assets more vital now than Heathrow, please; and when a Dreamliner falls on your house, don't say you weren't warned.

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  • Similarly to the suggestion in Arup-Halcrow-ICE sponsored "Sea Level Rise - Retreat, Defend or Attack? - Why not manage air-travel demand down and get ready for a more peaceful southeast result by shifting Transit air traffic 50 km offshore easterly to a new island connecting Barrages (energy-generating) & link roads at ~ 80 m AOD -a protected island and new Thames Barrier with giant Caissons supporting those roads and supporting 2 sets of sliding gates for 2 lanes catering for bigger ships' occasional access (Felixtowe moorings would be outside the Barrier in the North sea) and a lock system for smaller vessels. Long Bags of geotextile could stablise dredged material as water is pressed out and form foundations for new beaches (even sandy beaches ?) at shallow gradient rather than the usual rock armour. Initially these could be formed as tidal lagoons a few km wide similar to South Wales - which could be connected similarly to create a better-value barrage than proposals Cardiff-Weston. Thus protecting Bridgewater and eventually London and the inner Thames to Oxford and beyond (look at the contours and the likelihood of sea level rise connecting Thames water to Bridgewater eventually - unless strategic action can be funded before fossil fuels run out completely. Why not put a tax on Aviation fuel to reduce the congestion in the air and drop-of-the-hat holidays? ). Such funds could then assist installing Accessible wind-farms each side of the road/rail and around the island surplus energy from which would pump out the river water from the resulting inshore semi-saline lagoon thus created and eventually it could be a water store for London (in the immediate term assisted by boom-supported curtains separating fresh from salt water. Something needs to be done to direct from more consumerism to more investment against the obvious flooding threat as river waters become ever harder to empty..

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