June 25, 2014 11:59 pm

Doubts grow over Davies report on Heathrow

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Lord Heseltine and Lord Adonis have warned that the disagreement over whether to expand Heathrow is unlikely to be resolved by the independent commission set up by the coalition to examine how to increase Britain’s aviation capacity.

Ministers appointed Sir Howard Davies, former head of the CBI, in 2012 to examine how to expand aviation capacity in the southeast after a coalition fight broke out over whether to allow a third runway at Heathrow.

The government had scrapped the former Labour government’s plans for a third runway, only for Tory chancellor George Osborne to become increasingly keen on reviving the idea.

But Lord Heseltine, the former Tory deputy prime minister, said on Wednesday that there had been little progress on increasing airport capacity for the past 50 years. “The chances of getting consensus on the issue is very, very limited,” he told an audience of infrastructure experts in Westminster.

Lord Adonis, Labour’s shadow infrastructure minister, echoed the view that the chances of Heathrow getting the green light in the next parliament were slim. The Davies commission will not report until after the general election, and party manifestos are unlikely to spell out their positions on the airport in any detail, he said.

This meant there would be “another big row because the recommendations have not been put before the electorate. Meanwhile, we have a country that is closed for business,” the Labour peer, widely seen as the architect of the HS2 rail project, warned.

Meanwhile, the CBI has urged all political parties not to “kick the can” further down the road on aviation, and business leaders have begged politicians to forge a consensus around the Davies findings.

The Institution of Civil Engineers added its voice on Thursday, calling on the government to “get on with it” and make decisions on infrastructure. Four years after the coalition came to power announcing a £375bn pipeline for new energy, road and rail projects, there was evidence that the government was “good at drawing up plans, but not so good at delivering,” said Keith Clarke, vice president of the ICE.

The ICE, which has 80,000 members, warned that the UK has dropped from 24th to 28th in the World Economic Forum rankings for quality of infrastructure, behind Barbados and Saudi Arabia. Three areas are of particular concern – energy, flood management and local transport, it said.

Maintenance investment in local roads had declined by 11 per cent in real terms from 2011 to 2014/15, leaving one-third of local roads in urgent need of attention.

In flood defences, the government is spending £1.4bn less than the Environment Agency estimates is required.

Meanwhile, an increasing reliance on gas imports, the decline in production from the North Sea and a dearth of storage facilities have increased “vulnerability to unplanned outages”, ICE warned. In March 2013, for example, technical problems with the Langeled line supplying gas to the UK from Norway temporarily disrupted gas imports, resulting in price spikes and blackout warnings.

Although the coalition has urged the private sector to invest in infrastructure, there are only two sources of funding: “tax, user charges or a combination of the two”, said Mr Clarke. “Clever finance is great, but it always comes back to who is going to pay it back.”

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