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Tackling airport congestion

Government review must be fearless.

The coalition government wants to be seen to be supporting infrastructure as a means to stimulate growth and employment. In transport, this is proving challenging. There have been three secretaries of state in the two or so years since the General Election. Michael Crick, a political correspondent tweeted that new transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin “…will be the 24th currently living person to have held the job.” Compare this with just four prime ministers.

One McLoughlin’s first actions was to set up an independent aviation commission. Its remit is focused on “identifying and recommending to government options for maintaining this country’s status as an international hub for aviation”. The commission will be led by Sir Howard Davies. He has been among other things a Treasury civil servant, deputy governor of the Bank of England and director general of the CBI. He will be alive to the “snakes and ladders” of being asked to answer a hugely important and tricky exam question.

Cost benefit anaylsis

The Royal Commission under (the then) Lord Roskill that reported in 1971 was probably the first attempt by the British government to use a commission to tackle the airport capacity conundrum. The commission’s remit was to identify the location for a four runway London airport. It used cost benefit analysis “in anger” for the first time. This famously led professor John Adams of University College London to conclude that the methodology dictated an airport in Hyde Park. Other commentators dismissed parts of its analysis as “nonsense on stilts”.

Whilst his brief is broader than Roskill’s, Davies will face many of the same questions. He will need to come up with recommendations that reconcile arguments around the case for aviation growth and the impacts on the environment, noise and congestion.

He should surely start by looking at the wider contribution of aviation to meeting broader policy objectives of employment, competitiveness, regeneration and boosting economic growth. He should be brave and ambitious in thinking through a range of solutions to deliver airport capacity as part of a wider integrated transport policy including high-speed rail. He should avoid following a model-led approach which risks over emphasising criteria such as the value of time. Affordability and accessibility must also be taken into account.

Roskill undermined

When it came to Lord Roskill’s commission, a certain location for the third London airport to the north east of the city was eliminated. His four shortlisted locations were ultimately all abandoned by government. Thirteen years later major expansion of Stansted commenced.

Forty or so years on from Roskill, the public can and should expect more from the new commission. Sir Howard’s timescales are do-able but tight. He must produce an interim report by the end of next year and a final report by summer 2015. It is vital for the credibility of government policy - making and the future of the UK’s economy that the commission produces recommendations for an integrated aviation transport solution that will fly. Much is riding on Sir Howard’s shoulders. It may yet be a turbulent ride.

  • Alexander Jan is global leader for Arup’s transport transaction advice team

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