Once upon a time, a Government Commission reporting to Harold Wilson recommended a new airport to serve the South East be built at a rural site in Oxfordshire, but plans were soon abandoned. Next, in the early 70s, Foulness in Essex was identified as a possible location for a four runway hub, before also being abandoned. More recent proposals – most notable of which was Boris Island in the Thames Estuary – add to the growing list of sites looked at all around London.
Identification of the need for more airport capacity in the South East is not new, and neither is the stop-start approach successive Governments have taken to these monster projects. What has been constant is an understanding that Heathrow is a less than ideal location for a hub, given its location constrains potential growth, among other concerns about prevailing winds and fog.
But we are where we are, and Heathrow has won out, despite the massive campaign launched by Gatwick to win over the support of policymakers, and the harrumphing of various high profile Conservative MPs. When the Transport Secretary announced this in the House of Commons a few weeks ago, he promised to ‘keep costs down’ for a project already estimated to cost over £14bn, with completion some time in 2025.
Despite Cabinet approval and a likely vote of approval in the House of Commons today, nobody would yet say that Heathrow’s third runway is a done deal. History teaches us to be cautious. The then Labour Government signed off on the project only for it to be cancelled by the Coalition Government, many of whose leading members represented constituencies in close proximity to the airport. The project is a prisoner of geography and politics, and should Theresa May suffer a Brexit-related fall from power, there’s every chance that her successor – Conservative or Labour – could cancel it again. It would be very difficult for a Prime Minister Boris to both support a runway and lie in front of a bulldozer, and Labour’s tests on cost, noise, pollution and other areas seem perfectly designed to continue perpetual political pontification.
Major British infrastructure projects are beholden to the political whim of the day, with careful consideration given to the views of the people. In some ways that’s not necessarily a bad thing since it ensures democracy works. UK politics has an inherent local focus because of the constituency system. But it does mean that the British economy is held back and longer term investment considerations are overlooked. Charles de Gaulle’s four runways opened in 1974 – the same year the Foulness hub plan was eventually abandoned.
Companies seeking to be part of major infrastructure projects should recognise the importance of the local element – the people need to come on the journey so that the politicians feel able to vote for the project. Building an engagement programme that works slowly toward that point is as important as sticking to the initial plan, otherwise we are destined to rehash the same old arguments for the next fifty years.
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