When the worst decision is no decision

In the next few weeks the Government is expected to announce its decision on the expansion of London’s airports, based on the recommendations of the Airports Commission 1. If there is a decision – and assuming it stands – this would be a breakthrough. It would bring to an end at least 50 years of indecision.


Heathrow Expansion Campaign

The Roskill Commission was set up in 1968 to look at airport capacity and in 1970 recommended a new airport at Cublington, near Aylesbury. This was rejected and the Government chose Foulness – restyled Maplin Sands – near Southend-on-Sea. In turn, this proposal was later abandoned in 1974 when it appeared that demand would be lower and the costs considerably higher than previously estimated.

Gatwick Expansion Campagin

By 1990, the Civil Aviation Authority advised that a new runway in South East England would be needed by 2005. After various proposals and consultations, the Government published a White Paper in 2003 proposing a second runway at Stansted. More proposals, consultations and judicial reviews followed – including proposals for a new airport on sites in the Thames estuary; but no new capacity. In 2009, the Labour Government confirmed support for a third runway at Heathrow (and a sixth terminal), but this was abandoned by the Coalition Government after the 2010 General Election.

In 2012, Sir Howard Davies was appointed to head the Airports Commission. An interim report was published in December 2013, but the Final Report was planned for publication after the 2015 General Election. Elsewhere in the world, in contrast, after a study in 1974 Hong Kong built an artificial island and constructed a two-runway hub-airport, which opened in 1998 – a year after sovereignty was transferred from Britain to China. Closer to home, Frankfurt opened a third runway in 1984 and a fourth in 2011. Madrid Barajas airport opened a third and fourth runway in 2004. These comparisons cannot be dismissed as unreasonable because Britain is less autocratic than Hong Kong or is more densely populated than Germany or Spain. Amsterdam Schiphol Airport has added a sixth runway in 2003 and has plans for a seventh. The airport is aiming to be climate neutral by 2030. Only our dithering over airport infrastructure looks to be world-leading.

The history of this indecision would warrant further study to explore a number of issues, but there are a couple of positive aspects that resonate with challenges we have faced when supporting clients with writing business cases. The first example is the ‘do minimum’ option. Our consulting experience has shown us that there is often a reluctance to develop a credible ‘do minimum’ option. Instead various options – some perhaps grandiose – are compared with an unacceptable ‘do nothing’. Arguably, the decision to abandon Maplin/Foulness in 1974, for instance, can be seen as a good example of resisting the temptation of grand projects and instead selecting a credible ‘do minimum’, expanding Heathrow, Gatwick and, later, Stansted.

The second example is undue optimism. Throughout the world across many disciplines there is clearly ‘optimism bias’, especially associated with large and technically challenging projects. Our own experience working on business cases show that even though people are aware of the effect it is very difficult to resist the temptation to overestimate benefits while underestimating costs and timescales. The Airports Commission, as many of its predecessors 2 have done since the 1950s, has turned down Thames estuary sites, resisting the allure of these expensive and uncertain schemes.

But there are negatives. Our experience of developing business cases has also shown us a reluctance to take difficult decisions that are burdened with inevitable uncertainty. Protection of personal reputations can be hidden behind process and requests for more information and analysis, which do not change the fundamentals of the case and can lead to the passage of time taking the decision.

In the same vein, much of the last 25 years looks like a failure to choose between politically unattractive inland options (whether Heathrow or Stansted) on the one hand and, on the other, economically unattractive airports in the Thames estuary. Environmental issues seem often to be used as a fig-leaf for self-interest rather than a coherent policy. This points at some systemic failures in our ability to take decisions that are needed to overhaul our national infrastructure to enable us to compete in the world.

There are, as we know to the nation’s cost, times when there is a case for ‘masterly inactivity’. Anthony King and Ivor Crewe’s excellent book “The Blunders of Our Governments” has plenty of examples where more thinking and less doing would have helped the country and saved the taxpayer3. But overall, the dithering over expanding London’s airport capacity is becoming a demonstration of the quote, attributed to Theodore Roosevelt that “in any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”

1 Airports Commission, Final Report, July 2015
2 Melvyn Helsey and Fintan Codd, Aviation: proposals for an airport in the Thames estuary, 1945-2014, SN4920, House of Commons, March 2014
3 Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, The Blunders of our Governments, Oneworld Publications, 2013. This book deliberately focuses on active blunders rather than ‘sins of omission’ and recognises that airport capacity is an area of indecision along with responding to climate change, dealing with the ageing population, planning for sufficient generating capacity and expanding vocational education.

Meet the author

Ian Bennett

Ian Bennett

Ian is an expert in change management, efficiency reviews, business cases and costing in the public sector. Ian has over 30 years of experience of working in the public sector, as a civil servant, an auditor and as a consultant, covering central and local government, defence,… Read more »