An inquiry won't solve the Heathrow question
by Ben Rogers
So, one of the longest sagas in British politics - the dispute about runway capacity in the South-East and where it should go - just got longer.
The Coalition is to announce the creation of an independent inquiry, led by economist and business leader, Howard Davies, to report after the next election. The decision appears to be getting a warm reception both from business groups keen to see expansion, and Tory and Labour politicians, including Labour leader, Ed Miliband, as they want to find a way of defusing an issue on which both parties are internally divided (the Lib Dems are apparently united in opposition to runaway expansion, above all at Heathrow).
Yet the move is outrageous. It will also, in all likelihood, prove counter-productive. A decision of this kind can't possibly be made by an expert inquiry, no matter how expert.
Yes, an inquiry has a role to play. This is a uniquely partisan debate, with powerful lobbies ranged on all sides. The arguments are intricate and complex, and doubtless many of the claims made in the heat of battle are exaggerated. An inquiry may shed some helpful light on the murky world of arguments and counter-arguments.
But the final decision is not a technical one - it is not a matter of developing a finally tuned economic or felicific formula and applying it to the issues at hand. A debate like this pits different value schemes - indeed fundamentally different worldviews - against each other.
There is no expert or objective way of scoring (say) the value of the seascapes and the wildlife that would be despoiled by a new airport in the Thames estuary, against the value of a new airport to the British economy. There is no 'scientific' way of determining who is right: opponents of expansion like Zac Goldsmith, who see the natural environment as fragile thing that we disturb at our peril, or Boris Johnson, who suspects nature is pretty resilient.
In these circumstances, the only way of making a legitimate decision is through the ballot box. The parties need to set out where they stand on the runway issue in their manifestos, and let the democratic process do its work.
Do Cameron and Miliband really think that those who don't like the view that the Davies inquiry comes up with will accede to them? Of course they won't.