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Runway delay is elephant in the room for chancellor's National Infrastructure Delivery Plan

Staring with a strange yearning at A history of Indian railways in the ICE’s magnificent library last week, I was reminded of former Bank of England governor Mervyn King’s declaration that “a successful central bank should be boring”.

The fact that the launch of the Treasury’s new National Infrastructure Delivery Plan was a largely uneventful affair should be celebrated as a largely good thing.

“The government needs to spend the coming months plugging the big gaps in the pipeline – notably on airports”

The infrastructure world has seen its fair share of fireworks over the years, when what is really needed is the dull and worthy certainty of a long-term pipeline.

So two cheers for the £483bn of infrastructure investment outlined in the plan through to 2020/21. But one had only to flick to chapter 5 on airports to see the holes in the pipeline.

Runway at some point

Under the heading “Progress by the end of 2020/21” sat the statement that there would be “a decision on a preferred new runway in the SE and preparation of a new Airports National Policy Statement”.

Well at least that’s a deadline the government might hit, but any business that adopted such a languid approach to strategic decision-making would quickly go bust.

So the government needs to spend the coming months plugging the big gaps in the pipeline – notably on airports. And as well as providing more clarity on the long-term plan, it must also be more vigorous in supporting growth in the here and now.

Given that any new runway remains at least a decade away, we simply must make more of what exists now.

“The government must develop firm plans for rail improvements to make airports with spare capacity more attractive”

First, that means enabling London City airport to grow. Last year, City’s plans for a larger terminal, a new taxiway to get planes on and off the runway quicker and more aircraft stands were blocked by the mayor of London.

This was against the wishes of the council and local businesses, and counter to the conclusions of the mayor’s own officers. An appeal against this decision will shortly be considered by government, who must now allow expansion to proceed.

Railways to runways

Second, the government must develop firm plans for rail improvements to make airports with spare capacity more attractive to airlines and passengers. This was a specific recommendation of the Airports Commission interim report back in December 2013 and the lack of tangible progress since then remains hugely frustrating.

A faster and more reliable train link to Stansted, in particular, would help unlock capacity that is currently under-utilised.

In his foreword to the delivery plan, the chancellor declared: “In this parliament we will be bolder.” Plugging the aeroplane-shaped holes in the National Infrastructure Plan would be a good start.

David Leam is infrastructure director of London First

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