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Runway delay risks leaving UK infrastructure at the departure gate

Somewhere in a parallel dimension there is a world where, in response to ballooning demand and a risk of losing global trade, the UK made a decision to follow the construction of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 with an immediate move to build a new runway to go with it.

The resulting capacity improvement boosted London’s position as a global economic powerhouse, sustaining the country’s economy in the face of international competition.

Sadly we don’t live in this alternative realm.

Instead we live in a country where the only commitment to UK aviation has been to fly as many kites as possible, rather than run the risk of actually building something.

Unwanted fantasies

Politicians with the aviation brief across the political spectrum have excelled themselves in commissioning reports, proposing fantasy proposals (Boris Island, anyone?) and steadfastly refusing to make a decision that may displease a small but vocal electorate who happen to live near Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted.

“We live in a county where the only commitment to UK aviation has been to fly as many kites as possible”

Yet we don’t have to take a trip into the twilight zone to see how this could have been so different.

Across the channel in Europe and elsewhere around the world, governments have been firing up their construction industries to lay asphalt on a huge number of new runway projects.

And this is not in unthinking dictatorships where they can press on against the will of their people.

Even in countries with similar local stakeholder challenges, a way has been found to balance the needs of surrounding communities with the needs of the wider economy.

This week the UK has another opportunity to join this world.

Clearing the air

In the Airports Commission report, we have an independent, thorough assessment of where and how the UK should build its new aviation capacity in South-east England.

It had cross-party support, so its findings should be the final word on the issue, freeing up the country to finally get on with building.

“Its findings should be the final word on the issue, freeing up the country to finally get on with building”

Yet all the indicators suggest that, having given Sir Howard Davies the responsibility for making a decision that ministers felt not capable of making themselves, those same politicians fear that they may not like what the commission says.

The real test here is one that has repercussions across the whole of the construction industry.

Expanding our road and rail capacity, while rebuilding our power generation capacity will be a dominant theme for the next decade.

Yet we are about to find out whether a minority group of ministers will use their sway to block a project in the face of independent evidence.

If they succeed, what is to stop others trying the same trick when the call comes to build vital infrastructure in their constituency?

Such temptation must be avoided.

It’s the final call to get on with building the future success of the UK economy.

Alasdair Reisner is chief executive of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association

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