I have a confession to make. I was the planning minister that helped take the 2008 Planning Act through parliament – an Act that was designed to speed up development of national infrastructure projects. As you can see, it has had only limited success.
We haven’t built a new runway in the south-east of England since the second world war. By 2026, when we expect Heathrow to open its third runway, the Chinese will have built 136 new airports.
Frankfurt opened its third runway in 1984. In 2011, when Heathrow reached 99.2 per cent of its capacity – Frankfurt opened its fourth runway. Paris’s Charles de Gaulle also has four. Amsterdam’s Schiphol now has six.
Back in 2009, the Labour government reaffirmed its support for a third runway at Heathrow. The Conservatives set up their own Independent Airports Commission to look at it in 2015 and came to similar conclusions. Parliament finally voted on it in June of 2018, backing the idea with a majority of 296. And all of that was just to get it to the planning application stage.
But this isn’t just the Heathrow experience. Whether its railway lines, major roads, or power stations, the infrastructure we need to create jobs, live our lives and grow our economy is stymied. At least in part, politics and our politicians must take responsibility for that.
At a time of economic and political instability it becomes more important than ever for our politicians to be braver about national infrastructure. They need to articulate the reasons to ‘do’ rather than find excuses to ‘not do’.
It is difficult for politicians to say what they really believe these days, many fear they will be shouted down on twitter. There will invariably be a lobby (or at least a few difficult individuals with multiple online identities) who will give them a hard time. My fear is that we are heading towards a democracy where our MPs will one day be replaced by online voting on all the key decisions because it has become so uncomfortable for them to do something that is not universally popular.
The third runway project at Heathrow is an interesting but not untypical example. The local polling shows that far more people who live in the constituencies and boroughs close to the airport back it than oppose it – including in the seats of Hayes & Harlington, Uxbridge and South Ruislip – where the local MPs have been high profile critics.
With big projects the protests are often small but vocal, often led by interest groups from way outside the area. Local people tend to be the ones that understand both sides of the argument and make balanced judgements about the economic and environmental case for change. They should not be ignored.
In a political environment where being rational and correct is often trumped by being loud, getting investment for new infrastructure projects will remain more challenging in the UK than in our competitor countries.
Its time for our politicians to be brave, and to place trust in silent majorities in their own communities.