Infrastructure Inertia
By James Allen, Consultant

When a Government says it supports something, it often doesn’t mean it will happen – at least quickly.  It is now almost ten years since then Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon announced the Labour Government’s support for a third runway at Heathrow (and a sixth terminal, to boot).

The plans still command strong political support: recent ComRes research for Heathrow Airport shows that three quarters of MPs across the House support a third runway. If Theresa May had that level of support for any of the other projects she would like to do (not to mention Brexit) she’d be skipping down Downing Street. The controversy around expansion at Heathrow and other large-scale infrastructure projects highlights the wider problem that Britain has with taking big decisions of this nature; they take a long time to happen.

Take HS2: like the third runway, it was first proposed in 2009 under Gordon Brown’s Government, opened to public consultation in December 2010, and the first part of legislation achieved royal assent in February 2017 with the first train services not expected to run until 2026.

While there are political considerations as to why things are delayed, (no MP wants to fight an election in a marginal seat promising local disruption and more noise) there is also the issue of legal challenges and the burden on the private sector to raise the funds and build it. How that connection between private and public infrastructure might change post-Carillion and might be affected by a Corbyn Government is a question that remains to be answered.

Heathrow, Hinkley Point C, house building and HS2 are all examples where governments dithered over investing in long-term planning for Britain’s future. While politicians are often happy to promise such things, highlighting their long-term perspective and making an appeal to the amorphous idea of ‘the future’, delivery of the kind of infrastructure needed has been slow at best.

ComRes research back in 2015 showed that seven in ten (71%) London business leaders said that a delayed decision on building a third runway at Heathrow would have a negative impact on their business.  And this support is not limited to business: in 2017 around two thirds of British adults agreed that, in the context of Brexit, a third runway at Heathrow Airport will benefit UK companies by opening up new trading routes and / or enabling more exports.

While political sensitivities encourage kicking the infrastructure can down the road, consider this: when Beijing’s main airport already housed a terminal bigger than all five at Heathrow, China set out in 2012 a daring plan to build no fewer than 70 airports in three years.  And it’s not only airports - since 2002, Beijing (a city of 20 million) has built 574km of subway track across 17 lines.

Of course there are legitimate concerns over difficult planning decisions taht must be heard, but there must also be far more speed in a process that can literally take decades: the public inquiry over Terminal Five took a record-breaking four years, gifting competitive opportunity to Heathrow’s continental European competitors.

If the UK has frittered away some of its competitive advantage by dithering, the post-Brexit environment presents the UK with an even more urgent challenge, yet Britain it seems is still woefully short of ambition.