The government has decided, again, to increase London’s airport capacity by building a third runway at Heathrow. If all goes well — and there is absolutely nothing in the vexed history of this issue to suggest that it will — then the new facilities might be operational in 2030.
That history begins in 1968, when the Roskill Commission was appointed to assess London’s airport capacity needs. The commission’s conclusion in 1971 was that a new airport should be built at Cublington in Buckinghamshire, about 40 miles north-west of London.
The commission was distinguished, its report was thoughtful, and its conclusion was almost certainly right. There are no good sites for an airport in the crowded south-east of England, but neither of the two principal contenders for expansion are places where anyone would choose to build an airport now: Heathrow is too close to London and Gatwick is inconvenient for many potential passengers. Cublington was the right distance from the centre to minimise noise nuisance, and in the right direction for users’ convenience.
But by the time the Roskill Commission reported, the Conservatives had replaced Labour in government, and well organised opposition from the shires had drained political support from the Cublington option. For several years, politicians played with the fantasy that an airport might be built at Foulness in the Thames estuary. But this proposal never made economic sense. The Treasury was determined to kill it, and in 1975, when the political complexion of the government had changed yet again, the Treasury got its way.
Despite the projections of a slowdown, which had provided rationalisation for the decision to abandon Foulness, air traffic continued to grow rapidly. Stansted, built north-east of London during the second world war as a base from which to bomb Germany, was greatly expanded for commercial operations.
For civil aviation, however, closeness to London is more important than closeness to the Ruhr. Stansted became a white elephant, eventually finding a role as a base for low-cost airlines: Ryanair is much the largest operator there today.
The dreary catalogue of procrastination continued. In 2003 a new airport strategy favoured a third runway at Heathrow, to open between 2015 and 2020; in 2009 the Labour government finally and belatedly threw its weight behind this proposal. But the wheel of political fortune turned and the plan was scrapped after the 2010 election.
Another fantasy — that high-speed rail could substitute for airport capacity — was pursued for a while. But as planes continued to circle congested Heathrow, another commission was appointed, 44 years after Roskill, to review the options.
This new report favoured a third runway at Heathrow and after one year’s further delay, Theresa May’s government last week announced its support for this option. But this decision will not be the end of the story, only the beginning of a new chapter.
Why are British governments so bad at making these decisions? Politics is central to the answer. Yet many of these policy failures occur over issues that are not in any obvious sense political. There is no ideological division over high-speed rail, or Hinkley Point, or many of the catalogue of horrors compiled in The Blunders of Our Governments, by the political scientists Anthony King and Ivor Crewe.
But our adversarial system encourages governments of any complexion to review the policies of any previous government of any different complexion, and the dire consequences of these reversals are particularly obvious in the case of London airport expansion.
That tendency to knee-jerk opposition is reinforced by a paradox of democracy — the tyranny of the minority. No one, except the people employed there, wants an airport, nuclear power station or railway built next to their home; while it is to the general benefit that these facilities are provided. But the clamour of the few who fear they may lose a lot drowns the quiet voices of the many who stand to gain a little.
It is also increasingly easy for opponents to use judicial as well as political methods to obstruct and delay. In the case of airport expansion, the ability of a small group to veto any specific proposal may simply represent an intractable obstacle to any rational policy.
And that quest for rational policy has been blighted by bogus quantification. Roskill made a pioneering and widely praised attempt to use cost benefit analysis to define the relevant issues. By the time the Airports Commission reported in 2015, this modelling exercise had morphed into a monster, a black box with trailing wires whose processes no one could understand, and which offered endless numbers but no insight.
Such over-specified and convoluted models are used as rationalisations for decisions that have in reality been taken on quite different grounds.
The power of modern computing, far from facilitating good decision making, gets in the way. Consultants are dispatched to find supportive numbers. This happened with HS2, the proposed high-speed link to Birmingham, and for years a policy in search of a justification. Competing cost benefit analyses yield the recommendations their sponsors want to hear. We have policy based evidence, not evidence based policy.
These spurious impact assessments provide cover for the increasingly superficial basis on which policy is really made. Foulness sounded environmentally friendly, even if it was not much use as an airport. Expanding Heathrow is a gesture that allows the new government to claim that, despite Brexit, Britain is “open for business”. HS2 is a transport project for the 21st century, a fast link to the Northern Powerhouse. The good policy is one that makes a good headline.
We suffer from what King and Crewe describe as a “deficit of deliberation”. And the rise of populism that has had “enough of experts” does not suggest matters will get better any time soon.