The latest twist in the London City Airport saga was laid out in these pages yesterday, with the news that a number of international parties are looking to bid for the site. But any sale, and the future of the airport, is heavily dependent on its prospects for growth.
Those growth prospects ought to be fairly straightforward – after all, there is demand for expansion, proposals to deliver that expansion have been subject to due process and proper interrogation, and the local council made a recommendation to approve the plans.
This is where the straightforward becomes depressingly familiar. It was at this stage that political calculations took hold and the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, reportedly intervened to order a veto of the application.
Time and again, crucial infrastructure programmes – from airport expansion to energy exploration – have been through a similar cycle of sensible, evidence-led policy being scrutinised in the appropriate way, only for politicians to seek to delay or kibosh development.
Of course, I understand why. This behaviour comes at the sharp point where policy and politics meet, where national interest and local voting may not align. But understanding this behaviour is different from accepting it.
Businesses all around the country are calling out for investment to help them trade and grow. They want world-class infrastructure to help them compete on the world stage. But all too often, all they can do is look on as vital projects stall because of political interventions.
This isn’t just deeply frustrating, it also has a very real impact on our efforts to secure long-term economic growth. Public infrastructure investment has declined noticeably since the 1970s, and Britain limps in at twenty-seventh in the World Economic Forum’s Quality of Overall Infrastructure table. In many cases, we have relied on patching up or adding to infrastructure networks built in the ‘70s. With that approach, it is inconceivable that we will have the connectivity and reliable services to empower our businesses to compete with the rest of the world.
If we are to have a chance of meeting the government’s aspiration of becoming the richest country in the G7, per capita, by the 2030s, we need to change this trend and make serious, sustained investment in our infrastructure.
So how do we break ourselves free of this spiral of procrastination? A great first step would be to try and depoliticise the decision-making process with the creation of a new independent body to oversee the UK’s infrastructure requirements. This would mean that we could make decisions based on evidence and expert analysis, not short-term political ambitions.
Doing that would mean that necessary projects, whether airport expansion, shale drilling, or rail and road improvements, could progress when and where they are needed, not when and where the political conditions are benign enough to allow them.