630: answering the BBC’s ‘five big questions’
Today’s entry reports on five big questions facing the new government, according to the BBC.
In an article published on Tuesday, the BBC set out five big questions for the new government – and four of them relate to infrastructure.
Will there be another runway at Heathrow?
Up in the air. There will either be a new runway at Heathrow, a new runway at Gatwick, both or neither. It all depends on two things: whether the Airports Commission recommends one of the two Heathrow options or Gatwick, probably in late June, and whether the new government then supports the decision. Views on Heathrow are more polarised than Gatwick, but the Airports Commission may not consider the political side of deliverability. It could recommend both airports, since its terms of reference refer to ‘recommendation(s) for the optimum approach…’. Early in a Parliament is a good time for a government to make a difficult decision, but whatever it is, it is likely to be challenged in the courts.
The commission has launched a supplementary consultation on air quality, closing on 29 May. This is because its detailed analysis has revealed slight differences in air quality effects between the two Heathrow options, which it had previously assumed would be the same. My non-expert interpretation is that the extended northern runway is now slightly worse than the north west runway option and both are above the air quality limits. Gatwick remains the same and below the air quality limits.
Further to a recent blog post on air quality, the Commission’s interpretation of ‘your project can’t slow down achievement of air quality limits in a zone’ appears to be ‘your project can’t be expected to be higher than the currently worst reading in the zone’. Surely a project could be worse but as long as it was brought within the limit before the rest of the zone that would be OK; conversely a project that wasn’t as bad but couldn’t be brought within the limit in time wouldn’t be OK. It should be about the certainty of coming within the limit in time rather than the expected value.
What’s precisely going to happen with HS2?
On track. There isn’t much doubt about that – it’s still going ahead. One little hiccup that may cause a delay is that Mike Thornton, the only Lib Dem on the committee of MPs considering the 1925 petitions against the project, lost his seat last week and so a new member will have to be appointed, who may well be from the SNP. Indeed, three visits by the Committee to the Chilterns due to take place later this month have been postponed. The committee is nevertheless likely to reconvene its hearings in June without much delay.
The bill was originally timetabled to be enacted by the election, although everyone knew that was wildly optimistic. Having said that, if it had followed the Development Consent Order (DCO) route, it would have been decided by now.
Will there be new nuclear plants?
Some con-fusion. The answer to this question depends on when the first such plant, Hinkley Point C, to date the only one to have a DCO, gets the green light for construction to start. This depends on final agreements being concluded between the UK government, EDF Energy and the China General Nuclear Power Corporation. Until that happens, the seven others earmarked in the National Policy Statement (Wylfa, Moorside, Sizewell, Bradwell, Oldbury, Heysham and Hartlepool) are unlikely to proceed full steam (or boiling water) ahead.
What is the UK strategy on climate change?
Less spin. While the UK has signed up to high-level promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power is being held up and onshore wind is out of favour, the Conservatives having promised local approval (i.e. veto) in their manifesto. Offshore wind (despite some very large projects getting consent) and other technologies such as wave, tidal and solar are unlikely to make up the difference – and do not produce the reliable ‘baseload’ electricity that nuclear (or carbon captured fossil fuel generation) does. The strategy needs to show a clear path towards a low carbon energy future, as it doesn’t at the moment.
Is the UK still going to intervene abroad?
OK, this one isn’t about infrastructure and I’m not qualified to answer it. It is nevertheless noteworthy that 80% of the government’s big questions are about infrastructure according to the BBC (although certain newspapers would make the BBC itself a ‘big question’). I therefore take away the impression that infrastructure remains cool and important as we move into a new political era.
15 May 2015