28 08 2012

The debate over whether to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport has re-emerged over the last couple of days with opinion split. However being for or against a third runway at London’s main airport is avoiding the important question; why is government strategy on transport so poor?

It is a topic I have covered on this blog before; that of the absence of an integrated strategy for transport. In January, news of the new HS2 high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham broke while last month investment in electrified rail lines was the latest announcement from government.

Linking the two together was an apparent recognition of the future importance of Heathrow. HS2 will have a spur added to link it directly to the airport while Wales and the West Country will gain direct links thus avoiding the need to travel into London and back out for flights.

What no one has announced is any research which clearly defines what future transport in, around, to and from the UK needs to look like in 10, 20 or 40 years’ time. This is important because without knowing this, no one can be sure that these are the right trains running between the right places.

It is something that doesn’t only impact on planning our railways and on Heathrow’s expansion (or not). Neither does it only impact on our road networks and all of our airports; it impacts on all aspects of transport including (for example) the possible use of canals as a green alternative for freight transport and, most importantly, how they all interlink.

Those for the building of a third runway at Heathrow, quite rightly, point out that London and the UK risk falling behind our competitors if we do not address the need for increased capacity especially for flights to and from emerging markets. What they don’t explain is why this capacity has to be at Heathrow.

Those against, quite rightly, point out the already high levels of noise and other pollution suffered by those living under Heathrow’s flight paths. What they don’t offer is an alternative solution to the problem.

Others, for example Boris Johnson, argue for a new airport in the Thames Estuary (nicknamed ‘Boris Island’) while Stanstead, Birmingham, East Midlands and others have all been put forward and dismissed at different times.

Meanwhile, while approving rail infrastructure plans which recognise Heathrow’s importance the Government sees no need to consider the need for increased air capacity until 2015 or later. As a strategy this is one of crossing the fingers in the hope the trains will be going to the right place instead of making decisions and planning now to ensure they are.

Such third-rate strategy negatively affects us all. The delay in making a decision could undermine Britain’s competitiveness in the global marketplace. Making what should be integrated plans separately risks far higher costs, especially if the solution used is away from Heathrow and (e.g.) a different HS2 spur is needed or further electrified lines are required.

The time to make the decision on Britain’s need for increased air capacity is now. The time to devise an integrated strategy for transport over the next three to five decades is now. Doing it piecemeal, addressing the railways without considering the roads, without considering the canals, without considering the ports (air and sea) is to apply third-rate thinking and third-rate strategy.

We will end up with what we get having missed the opportunity to clearly define what is to the nation’s best benefit from the outset.

It is not all negative though; the above provides a great warning for business when addressing strategy. Be sure to gain an awareness of the big picture before turning to detail and be sure to consider the impact of planning for one aspect of your company on those other, apparently unrelated elements.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, August 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

Twitter @cowanglobal



2 responses

28 08 2012
Bob Eastoe

There has been no transport policy in the UK defined by politicians. Politics is intrinsicly a short term profession so why do we expect unsuitably trained and experienced individuals to make such decisions.
Our whole infrastructure is an example of piecemeal development. The result will be a costly hotch-potch that keeps politicians dancing on the spot. Sooo frustrating!

29 08 2012

Hi Bob,

While I agree that our politicians tend to the short-term, rarely further ahead than the next election, they might argue that they have expert advisers in those areas in which they are not qualified/lack experience. Far from shifting the blame, this suggests that either they are not listening to those expert advisers or that those advisers are not expert.

Before pointing the finger, this is not very different from many businesses where strategy is seen as a generalist issue, often collectively conducted by a group whose expertise lies in other areas. Even when things go wrong, very rarely is the quality of strategy examined, if one existed it is assumed to be good. For a recent example, look no further than G4S.

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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