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.