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Decisions over UK’s airport capacity cannot be ducked

There is a certain sense of gloom and dismay that reverberates across the nation whenever David Cameron announces a new independent commission to examine options surrounding any particular controversial policy area.

And when it comes to aviation and airport policy not even the post-Olympics and Paralympics “wave of noise” as London Mayor Boris Johnson might put it, can disguise the fact that, once again, this piece of difficult policy making has been shunted firmly into the long grass.

The conclusion must be that government hasn’t got the courage or ability to make a decision. After all, the economic need to boost capacity is not in question. The challenge is where to build and that is simply politics - difficult politics requiring vision and belief.

Back in June NCE devoted space to the then re-emerging debate over expansion at Heathrow, highlighting the return of the previously outlawed third runway plan. At the time I wrote in this column of Cameron’s alternatives to backing the new Thames Hub.

“He could simply reshuffle his cabinet, move Justine Greening to, say, the troubled health portfolio, announce the results of some new research on aviation and competitiveness and press ahead with plans for expansion at Heathrow,” I wrote.

Reward for Hunt

Well of course as it turned out he kept the health portfolio as a reward for Olympic minister Jeremy Hunt. But Greening was indeed shunted away from transport to International Development where her anti-Heathrow expansion views can be effectively sterilised.

At the time I said it would be a shame to do so but having gone down this path it must raise questions over the precise point of the proposed independent commission on airport capacity to be chaired by former head of business lobby group CBI Sir Howard Davies really is.

It won’t report on short term options until the end of 2013 and no long term decisions will be made until after the next general election in 2015. And while I have no doubt that Davies will use experts to guide his thinking - I trust drawing on the Institution of Civil Engineers’ knowledge - government will still face the same difficult choices as now.

Meanwhile the nation’s economic competitiveness will continue to suffer. The lack of willingness over the last decade by successive governments to make the difficult decisions needed to shore up airport capacity in the long term is disappointing. But then so is the failure to adopt policies to help in the short term.

These could include, for instance, include allowing mixed mode runways at Heathrow, giving longer take-off and landing windows at airports beyond and even investment in infrastructure to boost transport between airports.

Rest assured that no decision around aviation will be easy, universally supported or even, probably, completely right. But continued reluctance to do anything risks damage to the UK aviation business, the supply chain it supports and the whole UK economy that relies on the connectivity that it provides.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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