The government has at least followed the advice of the Davies Commission, but the prospect of a long consultation is concerning  

Sarah Richardson

So, there we have it - after a mere half century of political indecision, the UK government has taken a view on expanding airport capacity in the South-east. While the decision of Theresa May’s Cabinet committee to back a third runway at Heathrow marks an end to decades of near-steadfast ministerial perimeter fence-sitting, however, the project’s take-off remains a distant prospect, and one mired in uncertainty.

May has made clear that the scheme will be subject to lengthy consultation, during which some ministers will be able to express a free view on the controversial issue, before being put to a parliamentary vote next winter. Meanwhile, campaigner Greenpeace, and four Conservative councils - one within May’s own constituency - are gearing up for legal action in the hope of stopping the project.

So while construction firms hoping to get a slice of the estimated £16bn work on offer will see this week’s decision as a landmark step, there is clearly still a long haul before the proposals become reality.

So while construction firms hoping to get a slice of the estimated £16bn work on offer will see this week’s decision as a landmark step, there is clearly still a long haul before the proposals become reality

The need for detailed debate on a project that is viewed by much of the business community as economically critical, but by many environmental campaigners as the worst-case option for expansion, and whose flight path affects thousands of residents, is obvious. But that debate has already been taking place in earnest since David Cameron commissioned the Davies review into airport capacity four years ago. Against that backdrop, it is hard to see May’s latest timetable, which postpones a parliamentary vote for much longer than many within Whitehall expected, as anything other than politically motivated, as she attempts to protect the fragile unity of a party still patching up rifts caused by the Brexit vote.

This feet-dragging, together with the tortuous route to Heathrow finding favour with the government, have a significance beyond the already critical question of airport expansion itself, as the industry, and the country, look to the feasibility of delivering a host of major infrastructure upgrades over the coming decades.

One big plus is that the government has, in its recommendation for Heathrow, (belatedly) followed the independent expert advice it commissioned in the form of the Davies review. To have done anything else would have been fatal for the principle of seeking expert opinion to guide decisions on major infrastructure. And this is a central founding principle of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), a body of experts whose creation received near-universal support from business, industry and politicians alike.

However, the prospect of a long consultation period on Heathrow, especially given the political splits already emerging, will fuel concerns about the government’s recent decision not to put the NIC on a statutorily independent footing.

Set up with the express purpose of “holding any government’s feet to the fire” on infrastructure delivery, one of the NIC’s key responsibilities should be to hold the government to timetables for delivery. Whether a body that is dependent on ministers for its funding and even continued existence can do that, in the face of political pressures that pull those ministers in an opposite direction, has to be called into question.

As Sir John Armitt, the NIC’s deputy chair, points out in our news story today, there is currently sizeable political will behind the NIC. And for as long as this lasts, the question of legal independence may not be an issue. Heathrow - should the decision be approved by parliament - will be an early test of that political buy-in. But more worrying are schemes that are even further from getting off the ground, which will rely on the NIC’s oversight continuing under ministers who, in all likelihood, will have had no stake in its creation.

This all matters because Heathrow provides, writ large, an example of the cost to the economy of delays on infrastructure improvements. The Davies Commission found that a new runway could provide a £147bn boost to the UK economy over the next 60 years, equivalent to around £6m a day. Wherever you believe a new airport should be located, figures like this make clear the UK is losing out on huge economic opportunity due to constraints on airport capacity - and that picture is brought into even sharper focus when you see the investment being made by other countries. Last year, research by KPMG found that the world’s major cities were on course to build 50 new runways by 2036.

The situation takes on extra urgency with the vote for Brexit, as the UK looks to carve out its own position in international trade. So the question, when it comes to investment not just in airports, but in other major transport and energy schemes, is does the government want that position to be at the top table? If so, we need to break out of the far too familiar holding pattern on infrastructure.

Sarah Richardson, editor