Autumn heralds pivotal choices

After the hiatus of the summer recess, Parliament is returning to work, and the priorities of Theresa May's new administration are becoming clearer.

One thing that seems apparent is a determination to finally make a decision in the long-running controversy over runway capacity in the South East.

Last July, Sir Howard Davies's Airports Commission unequivocally backed a third runway at Heathrow, only for their recommendation to hit the immovable object of David Cameron's declaration in 2009, "the third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts".

The new prime minister is not hemmed in by past statements of that sort. However, her Maidenhead constituency is near the Heathrow flight path; in the past she has been equivocal, recognising that many of her constituents depend on Heathrow for jobs, while at the same time being affected by aircraft noise.

The fact she has chosen to chair the cabinet committee which will make the decision suggests she is confident she can put constituency objections to one side if the conclusion is that the evidence points to Heathrow.

Meanwhile the debate has continued to rage over the three shortlisted options. London mayor Sadiq Khan has strongly backed expansion at Gatwick, sidestepping Heathrow's argument that hub rather than point-to-point capacity is needed. The third contender, the independent Heathrow Hub proposal to double the length of one of the existing runways, appears to be making a last-minute sprint, after former Conservative party chairman Lord Maude and Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways owner IAG, backed its proposal as cheaper, quicker and less disruptive.

There are arguments from both sides over noise: Heathrow says the Hub proposal is less good for giving residents respite from noise by alternating runway use. Heathrow Hub says its proposal brings no new people into the noise footprint, while reducing noise because planes will be landing further west and will therefore be higher on their approach over the most populous areas. A decision is promised for autumn.

There has also been reassurance about devolution to the north of England, the West Midlands and elsewhere. There were initial fears that this policy, closely associated with George Osborne, would be abandoned now he has left office. Ms May has acted to provide reassurance on that score, and has given her commitment to proceed with those devolution deals already in train, though it is likely that the level of enthusiasm of George Osborne will not be matched.

New Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has strongly supported High Speed 2. Regarding the Government's infrastructure investment programme, again closely associated with Mr Osborne, new chancellor Philip Hammond has promised to "reset fiscal policy" in the autumn statement if necessary in the light of events following the EU referendum. Mr Osborne had already abandoned his goal to reach a budget surplus by the end of this parliament in the immediate aftermath of the vote.

How far this means a rolling back of austerity is open to speculation. It is thought likely that it will not mean a widespread reversal of cuts in revenue budgets. But given that Mr Hammond was an ally of Mr Osborne and argued for transport investment when he was Transport Secretary in the last government, could he be planning to take advantage of unprecedentedly low interest rates to fund an expanded investment programme?

Many observers believe this would be the right way to go, not only to boost the economy but also to demonstrate confidence in the future following the Brexit vote. The autumn looks set to be a time of pivotal decisions.

Reference: Transport Times  September Issue 

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