Heathrow offers quaint lessons in infrastructure

July 1, 2015

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

After at least six years of heated debate, a British government-appointed panel has backed the idea of a third runway for London’s largest airport. China has built 44 new airports in that time. The United Kingdom’s deliberative approach has advantages, but it’s now time to act.

To an observer in, say, Beijing, the process may seem ridiculously quaint. The discussion about whether to add a new runway at Heathrow has lasted longer than anyone can justifiably think necessary. And there is still no definitive answer, since the ultimate decision lies with the government.

That said, the UK way may be seen as a triumph of democracy. Pretty much everyone gets a say. The environment is a factor, as is noise and threats to wildlife. It’s far preferable to what happens in many developing markets. A central planner’s approach can lack accountability. In haste, secretive committees may take decisions that are simply wrong.

By contrast, the open debate has shown all but the most ardent anti-development types that the south east of England needs additional airport capacity. The econometric evidence in the 342-page report persuades, but can be more powerfully understood through personal experience. Use Heathrow once and it’s clear demand exceeds supply.

The UK economy is likely to grow more nicely if people can come and go more easily, from and to more places. The report puts the economic benefits at 147 billion pounds ($230 billion). True, the size of the numbers and timespans involved mean that figure is no more than a guide. But having been published and republished in various iterations, the broad conclusion has been tested in the crucible of public opinion. Just as importantly, long consultation makes it easier to gauge adverse effects, or offer financial compensation for them. Centralised planners with a freer hand often ride roughshod over such imperatives.

The decision is hardly perfect. The chosen option – to build a third runway at Heathrow to the north west of the two existing runways – is more expensive than the other two ideas that didn’t get picked. Noise and carbon issues won’t go away. But the time has now come to stop talking and start doing.

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