Planning for delay?

Gatwick, and Heathrow, have submitted their revised plans for a second runway to the Davies Commission.

This is the latest round in a process that will culminate, hopefully, in a resolution to the UK’s aviation capacity crisis. There are many steps which would need to be taken along that road of course.

First the Government (whoever it is in 2015, after the next General Election) will have to do more than just read Sir Howard Davies’ report and recommendations on how to deliver increased capacity for the UK, which is all they have committed to so far.

Whoever is Prime Minister will be required to approve expansion at Heathrow or Gatwick, or potentially (if the concept survives a round of scrutiny this year) on the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary. This is perceived as a difficult political decision, so there is no certainty it will happen at all. It could take a while, and some particularly weak-minded leaders might suggest a national referendum so they could wash their hands of the decision altogether.

It shouldn’t be difficult. By the time Sir Howard reports we’ll have three years of proposals, improvements, evaluations and consultation under our belts to add to the 40 years of previous discussion. What could be revealed by more discussion and consultation?

We will then need to progress through our sometimes geologically slow planning system. Recent legislation – the National Planning Policy Framework – may be helpful in smoothing and speeding the process, but there will probably need to be a planning inquiry, and it is almost certain there will be judicial review applications. Taking all this into account, airports are suggesting it could take ten years to deliver a new facility if the process goes well, by which time our aviation capacity crisis will be even more acute, and the UK economy will have lost (according to recent estimates) £150bn.

It has also been noted that the People’s Republic of China will spend less than half that time building over 50 runways, and while there are aspects of that countries planning system that we might not wish to see operating in Sussex and Surrey, it is a salutary lesson in the cost of democracy.

It is to be hoped that, following the huge consultation there has been around the issue in the preparation of the Davies report it is at least concluded we don’t need any more, and can proceed direct to a decision and an inquiry.

Let’s hope we have a government prepared to take a quick decision.