Delays, delays and more delays. No it’s not the departure board at Heathrow, but the current state of play on its proposed runway, which transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin will reportedly try to justify in a speech to the British Air Transport Association (BATA) tonight.
The government has faced both frustration and fierce criticism over its continued reluctance to make a definitive decision on the matter – business groups in particular haven’t been shy about making their feelings clear. The most recent delay in December caused the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) to call it ‘gutless’, saying the ongoing postponements would prove bad news for the UK economy.
No decision will be made before the summer of 2016, but McLoughlin has indicated a further delay might be on the cards, telling LBC Radio last week the government hoped to make ‘some progress’ by the summer now, as opposed to a conclusive final decision.
The reason this time? The upcoming EU referendum, as multi-tasking two issues of such importance is too much for the government to handle. ‘There’s a lot of other things that are going on in the political spectrum... if there’s a referendum this summer and the like,’ he said.
Now having to explain the further delay to BATA, The Telegraph reported McLoughlin will say, ‘Of course I know that many in the industry were disappointed that we delayed the final decision.’
The government's latest justification for pushing it back has been the environmental concerns and the need to wait for further research before making a considered decision. MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee said no approval should be given to the expansion until the airport can demonstrate it will comply with key environmental conditions such as legal air pollution limits and committing to introducing a night flight ban.
Yet this hasn't proved convincing and many remain unimpressed with what's increasingly looking like uncertain procrastination to avoid taking the flak should things go pear-shaped once a decision has been made. Facing so much criticism, what defiant, well-composed rebuttal has McLoughlin compiled to convince naysayers? ‘The decision was delayed because it was the right thing to do. The responsible thing to do. To make sure we’re fully prepared. ’ Yes, really – the right thing to do.
Despite the Davies Commission report on airport expansion taking nearly three years of deliberation (and spending millions of taxpayers’ money in the process), McLoughlin will say officials are going to do ‘extra economic analysis’ – an analysis of the analysis done by the Commission to provide ‘assurance’ of its findings.
A decision will now be made once this work is finished – the one certainty is that it'll be after the London mayoral election, so at least Zac Goldsmith, a vocal opponent of the third runway, will be pleased. Yet each delay causes a drag in momentum and has already given Gatwick a second wind to mount another case for its expansion. The longer this goes on, the less confidence anyone, let alone businesses, will have in how capable the government is of making incisive strategic choices that are in the national interest.