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Airports Commission right to focus on need for a human touch

Contrary to anything you might have been expecting, the Airports Commission report was no fudge.

It stressed that the commission’s conclusions were “clear and unanimous” and that expansion is “crucial for the UK’s long-term prosperity”.

This is a first step in getting the runway built.

But until we see the government’s response, there is as yet no certainty that anything will come of this doorstopper of a report.

So now we must wait, as we have waited since 1945 – the last time a full-length runway was built in the South-east.

Grounds for optimism?

It is about now that commentators throw up their hands, invoke the spirit of Brunel, and lament the difficulties the UK has with large infrastructure projects.

Yet after decades of false starts, I believe there are grounds for optimism that the government will at last act – not just on this but on the other big infrastructure projects the country needs to undertake.

“I believe there are grounds for optimism that government will at last act”

As a country, we have taken great strides since the turn of the century when the cost overruns and delays on the Jubilee line extension in London seemed to confirm that major infrastructure projects were something Britain could no longer do.

Now we can point to numerous examples where political will has combined with industry expertise to deliver truly world-class schemes.

In London alone, for example, we have King’s Cross and the 2012 Olympics, with work well advanced on Crossrail and now beginning on the Thames Tideway Tunnel.

Shining example

I recently descended into the Crossrail tunnels to see the biggest construction project in Europe first hand.

Seeing the project up close brought home to me what a good job the Crossrail team has done to be a good neighbour to those communities it is disturbing and will in future serve.

For example, next to one site at Bond Street, an 18th century building stands cheek-by-jowl with five stories of cathedral-like underground construction.

Not only is the building unscathed, but staff in the offices there work studiously away just feet from the biggest infrastructure project in Europe, largely undaunted and uninterrupted.

Admirable emphasis

An expanded airport is of course a far more challenging companion, but I was greatly encouraged by the emphasis Sir Howard put on Heathrow becoming “a better neighbour for local communities”.

He set out a stringent package of environmental and community measures to secure this relationship which I think will prove crucial in winning consent for development to go ahead.

He has taken seriously the EU cap on air pollution and rightly insisted the airport and Department for Transport have robust plans for capping NOX emissions.

“While it’s easy to despair at the failure of politicians to act on strategically important projects, they must also take account of local people”

He has recognised the imposition on west London residents – such as, ahem, me – of flying over their houses and made clear there needs to be an honest negotiation about how to deal with noise.

Heathrow, in pitching the winning runway, also upped its game to offer those who will lose their homes 125 per cent of the value, as well as noise insulation measures for the wider community that will cost it millions.

While it’s easy to despair at the failure of politicians to act on strategically important projects, they must also take account of local people.  

Sometimes this is just a question of the promoters of big schemes having a more human touch.

It does not always have to be about big amounts of money – and the cost of delay caused by a lack of sensitivity can be far greater.

All of us trying to promote these big schemes could make life much easier for politicians – and hence ourselves – if we take more time to consider the human impact.

Then it’s up to our leaders, who must realise that when they take brave decisions, the UK can deliver – and can do it as well as anyone in the world.

Baroness Jo Valentine is chief executive of London First

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