Let local leaders rule on infrastructure projects

City A.M.
Follow City
Biritsh Airways Braced For Union Strike Action
Plans to expand City Airport could have turned out differently if local councils had more control (Source: Getty)

We will have to wait until at least the summer before the government is ready to make a decision on airport expansion. Would you be surprised if it finds some reason to put it off again?

No full-length runway has been built in the south east since the Second World War, and the continuing delay is a disaster for London. Not only is the capacity crunch already restricting trade growth, but this is yet more evidence that small groups of Nimbys are capable of capturing the levers of power.

This is a problem of successive governments’ own making. However many expert panels they assemble to “take the politics” out of big infrastructure decisions, they still bolt at the fence when it’s time to choose.

Centrally planning projects in Whitehall has this effect. When the benefits of development are dispersed across the country but the downside is concentrated on a small area, it’s far easier to prevaricate until after that coming election or tricky vote in parliament to keep angry and motivated groups of voters or MPs happy, especially when the government of the day has a small majority.

But there is an elegant solution: devolve both decisions on infrastructure projects and the upside associated with them (particularly growth in tax receipts) to the local council level.

The chancellor is already devolving business rates, incentivising councils to pursue business-friendly policies in order to grow their local tax base. Giving residents more of the benefits of new runways would surely have the same effect.

Would you mind having an airport on your doorstep if, as a result of development, you paid zero council tax or even received a rebate? There would be complications, but there is no reason councils cannot be trusted with decisions on projects of national importance.

First, this is not a command economy and it’s vital there is strong local support for development. Second, assuming council incompetence is self-fulfilling. If they have no power, they will indulge in trivialities. Finally, councils may well have a greater sense of perspective than authorities with wider responsibilities.

Plans to expand London City Airport have not hit the buffers because of Newham Council (which supports the proposal), but because the mayor of London decided to veto planning permission.

Related articles