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While deciding on a third runway at Heathrow is important for UK infrastructure, how we reached the decision could be just as significant.
The Government’s decision to back expansion at Heathrow sends a clear signal to the rest of the world – the UK remains open for business. In a period of growing uncertainty around the UK’s ability to thrive outside of the EU this is important.
A third runway at the UK’s largest airport is forecast to contribute £61bn in economic benefits to passengers and the wider economy over 60 years. It will create 77,000 local jobs and the airport itself has committed to 5,000 apprenticeships by 2030.
But there are other less obvious benefits. Particularly for those of us who champion a strategic approach to infrastructure. Choosing to expand Heathrow is an endorsement of the independent and evidence-led work that was carried out by the Davies commission. It is recognition that expert opinion does count.
Not least it also sets a positive precedent for the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). An indication that the analyses and studies that it undertakes across a range of infrastructure sectors and issues will, at the very least, be carefully considered by government.
The journey to reach a decision on where additional airport capacity should be built has been far from straight forward. And let us not forget that there are still many other obstacles to overcome before we see spades in the ground – public consultation on a National Policy Statement, a parliamentary vote and potential legal complications.
Yet it might shed some light on how other future infrastructure decisions pan out. The issue of airport capacity, like Hinkley Point C and HS2, has garnered national interest and divided public opinion. It has therefore wound up in the politically fragile decision making box; the place where time can stand still.
But in areas of infrastructure policy which are less controversial and public interest is less sensitive, evidence produced by the NIC should provide the catalyst for government to take speedier and more effective approaches to decision-making. The development and deployment of 5G and smarter power are both examples that spring to mind.
The potential knock-on effects are that important and much needed improvements to our infrastructure networks are brought forward, equating to better services for users and new economic opportunities for businesses and wider society.
ICE’s recently published National Needs Assessment sets our infrastructure needs to 2050 and provides a blueprint for the NIC’s own study which is due to report in 2018.