As predicted, the Davies Commission on airports has been a waste of time. Three years and goodness knows how much money was allocated in order to a) delay the issue until after the election and b) then provide an authoritative decision which the Government could pursue straight away. The delaying part certainly happened, but there is no sign of the swift action element.
Instead, we now learn that the Government will spend the next six months weighing up the options – options which it and its predecessors have weighed up for decades without coming to a meaningful conclusion. Which is frustrating.
As I wrote on Monday, the politics of the issue are even more fraught now than they were before the election. The small majority lends more power to local opponents of either Gatwick or Heathrow (or, for that matter, any other location in the South East of England). As a result, the national interest will apparently continue to be sidelined as every proposal is blocked by local concerns.
Labour, after some debate, are now backing Heathrow expansion – not because they made a single step towards delivering it themselves when they had the chance, but because the Prime Minister is now on the rack and they see an opportunity to turn the ratchet a few more notches. Indecision and dithering will be their charge, and the charge will hit home.
There could be ways to get overcome the local objections. Davies’ flurry of proposed regulations evidently doesn’t work, so perhaps we should look at the problem from the other end. If this is a development of vast economic potential, but it causes disruption to those near the site of a new runway, then surely they could be compensated. It would also be a mistake to assume that everyone in West London is dead set against a Heathrow expansion, for example – a sizeable minority have jobs which depend on the airport, for a start.
It’s easy to see why politicians shy away from making decisions like this. Whichever option they choose will annoy people, and cause disruption in the Commons as MPs either rebel or (in the case of Zac Goldsmith) resign to force by-elections over the issue. Allowing our airport infrastructure to fall further and further behind our competitors may cause large economic damage, but it’s slow-moving, diffuse damage, which is hard for the people who lose jobs or income as a result to directly blame on particular politicians.
But the decisions still have to be made. We cannot continue to wring our hands while our neighbours lay tarmac and welcome tourists and investors from around the world. If the Conservatives are the party of growth, of jobs and of enterprise, as we regularly hear, then we must also be the party of airports. Ministers and their advisors like to talk about the post-election period as a time to make controversial decisions, on the basis that they have five years to fade. If that applies to issues like welfare or taxation, why shouldn’t it also apply to settling the tortured issue of airport expansion?