Are Lib Dem pre-election airport expansion rumbles really a cause for concern?

Cross party support for infrastructure cannot be an election casualty, says Antony Oliver.

Antony Oliver, Infrastructure Intelligence editor

The first signs in nearly five years of a break in ranks on cross party support for infrastructure emerged this week over the need for airport expansion in the south east of the UK.

Until now we have been led to believe that however the dice fall in the recommendations by Howard Davies’s Airport Commission in May, Parliament would embrace the outcome and press forward with planning regardless of preferred location.

Yet the Liberal Democrat party’s rejection of leader Nick Clegg’s proposal to fall in line with Coalition policy and formally back expansion in the form of a new runway at Gatwick certainly underlines the fact that, post General Election, automatic political rubber stamping of Davies’s recommendation is highly unlikely.

There can be no doubt that investment in UK infrastructure over the last four years has led to growth in the economy. This must continue.

Liberal Democrat policy thus remains resolutely against building any new airport capacity at Heathrow or Gatwick and is therefore conspicuously at odds with thinking by its Tory Coalition partner and of Labour which both continue to back the Davies Commission process.

We must of course remember that the whole point of the Airport’s Commission was to ease the path through a consistently controversial and difficult decision making process. It was designed to take the political heat away and invoke cool headed decision making based on real facts and real needs.

And while most commentators highlight that the chances of the Liberal Democrats wielding any real post-Election power are remote – like “promising unicorns” as one put it – there are clearly concerns over the message that this conference decision sends about the overarching Davies outcome. 

As John Cridland, CBI director-general, said: “Growing airport capacity in the South East is critical to the UK's economic future. Business will be extremely disappointed that the Liberal Democrat delegates fail to recognise this.”

He added: “All parties must endorse the Commission's final recommendation when it reports back next summer.” 

Coalition is, of course, a tricky business and this week’s Liberal Democrat conference presented Clegg, Cable, Alexander et al with a difficult tightrope to walk in terms of hyping success while deriding their partners. It could therefore be easily dismissed as a necessary sideshow.

But on the other hand there can surely be no doubt that it also underlines the inevitable changing political atmosphere as we move towards the General Election and what will follow afterwards. 

The infrastructure community must be aware of this change. 

For while, as Infrastructure Minister Lord Deighton pointed out in a speech last week, any post-election government, regardless of colour, is unlikely to interfere with anything that is successful, it will also be vitally important that cross party consensus around the value of investment in infrastructure continues.

There can be no doubt that investment in UK infrastructure over the last four years has led to growth in the economy. This must continue. 

The creation of voter friendly policy difference between parties is a natural fact of election strategy. We must ensure that solid cross party support for infrastructure is not a casualty.

Antony Oliver is the editor of Infrastructure Intelligence

If you would like to contact Antony Oliver about this, or any other story, please email