A new political consensus and consistency of transport minister appointments is needed if Britain is to avoid a potentially catastrophic lack of policy on airport capacity in the south east of England.
Lord Adonis, the former Labour transport minister, who was only in the job for 11 months, told the ITT conference that a lack of a decision on increasing capacity was not sustainable.
He said if there continued to be no political will to reconsider adding capacity to Heathrow or Gatwick the prospect of a new airport in the Thames estuary, as supported by London mayor Boris Johnson will become more likely.
“This is not a sustainable policy. There has to be new airport capacity in the south east of England,” he said.
Lord Adonis said the government might have to “bite the bullet” and consider either a third runway at Heathrow or a new runway at Gatwick once the covenant runs out in 2019.
“If UK plc is incapable of grappling this vexed but crucial decision over the next five to 10 years I think the case for leaping over that stage and thinking very seriously about an entirely new international airport with high speed connection into central London will become quite strong.”
Lord Adonis said successive governments have bungled on this issue largely because transport ministers, who rarely stay long in the job, look for ways to avoid an issue that is likely to make them hugely unpopular with a portion of the electorate.
He admitted the last government made mistakes over the third runway proposal by announcing it in the run up to an election, inviting the Conservatives to play politics with it.
He urged the industry to commission an independent review of airport capacity in the south that will report after the next general election and to get the main political parties signed up to it.
Lord Adonis contrasted the situation in the UK where there has been a rapid turnover of ministers, not just in transport which has had 31 since the war, with the situation on the Continent.
And he said a longer tenure and the appointment of individuals with a genuine interest and expertise in their sectors would ensure the UK is as well governed as in some European countries.
“What we need is much more consistency in transport policy and you can’t get that unless you get people doing the job who are experienced and hold the post for some time. It should be three to four years, minimum.
“Most people who are transport secretary do not want it. We need as a crucial priority to have more stability in ministerial appointments and more expertise in the subjects.”
Lord Adonis cautioned the industry about over-lobbying ministers, saying most of the time business did not want the government to know what they are up to.
“A large part of the time what you want is government not to be aware of your existence. Once they are aware of your existence what you find is an army of civil servants will try to regulate you.”
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