My Lords, I rise to make a few points in this debate on what is clearly an extensive subject and one which has a significant impact on our own and our children’s long-term future. I would like to say first that in this debate, whatever our political allegiance, we all essentially want the same outcome, which is an infrastructure that will strengthen our economy and ensure that we remain one of the leading economies of the world. To do that, though, we cannot rely on our Victorian heritage. We must have a long-term vision and the will to make it happen. As the Chancellor said last year:
“We must learn from the past, not be the past. Decide or decline. That is the choice”.
That means not only putting aside our political differences but doing things differently, for clearly, as it stands, the system of decision-making still leaves considerable room for improvement. I welcome Sir John Armitt’s proposals for an independent infrastructure commission because it has sparked a debate and, it is hoped, will lead to the outcome that we all want.
From a business perspective, there is clearly support for doing things differently. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, quoted the views of the CBI on this. That is not to say that the direction of travel in recent years has not been positive. The publication late last year of the road investment strategy and the forthcoming publication of a digital strategy this year indicate that we are starting to think beyond the immediate future. The innovations in the Infrastructure Bill currently going through the Commons are helping to put in place the building blocks for this. These are less controversial, though, than some of the tough decisions that are still outstanding, and none is more pressing than the key question of the airport capacity that is required if the UK is to remain competitive, and if we are to rebalance our economy and secure longer-term sustainable growth.
The experience of the Airports Commission, currently led by Sir Howard Davies, offers interesting insights upon which we can draw, demonstrating the importance of taking an evidence-based approach. When analysed in the cold hard light of day, the case for new runway capacity in the south-east is clear. With this clarity, it is essential that we as politicians play our part and commit to implementing the proposals when they are published in June, so that we can finally increase our capacity and grow the links to emerging markets that our businesses so desperately need. In the past five years, while we have been reviewing one runway, China has gone from 175 to 230 airports.
Getting value for money is important, although I cannot help but ask the question: did the Victorians rigidly cost-benefit analyse every project they undertook or did they start with a vision of what they wanted to achieve as a country? Where do we want to be: among the top industrial nations of the world or lagging behind because we have made an industry of analysing the detail of the tools we require in order to get there? Indecision on new runway capacity is already impacting on business investment, so we must take action as soon as possible. Business needs clarity, and not just on aviation but on the long-term future of infrastructure across the board, from our energy supplies to our funding for upkeep of the road network. These are key aspects that will promote growth. In all these areas we need to have an adult conversation both with each other and with the public about what we need and when we need it.
For too long, major infrastructure projects have become a painful process which has been hijacked by bureaucracy, electoral cycles and interest groups, despite the fact that we have democratically elected representatives to take these important decisions. It is important that we have a national debate which involves both politicians and the public, but we must also keep the end goal in mind—job growth, prosperity and security for our citizens. Perhaps an independent body made up of experts is the best way to help politicians to achieve this.