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Do we really need yet another Airports consultation?

Eyebrows have been raised from the business community and others who feel a decision on this controversy is long overdue. They think that the 70,000 responses given to Howard Davies’ Airports Commission were more than enough to expose the relevant arguments.

The trouble is that the Questions asked were a bit general – in fact they were VERY general and were deliberately designed to avoid the more straightforward Yes/No type options. In many ways they were excellent. After all, consultation is not meant to be a ballot!

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We suspect the Airports Commission always envisaged the need for a further consultation, when more information is known about the precise project(s) the Government wishes to propose.

There is a danger of consultation fatigue. There is also a danger that yet another consultation is seen as a fudge and buying time in order to minimize the damage of a rift in the Conservative Party.

In principle, there is a case for consultation if the decision is still to be made. If, however, newspaper reports are right, and the Government will announce a decision in favour of Heathrow’s expansion next week, what exactly is the purpose of the consultation? We see three possibilities

  • “We want to expand Heathrow, but we would like to know your views about the potential impact of this decision so we can design a scheme that mitigates them as far as possible?”
  • “Parliament will need to take the final decision, and the Government now has a preferred option. Please give us your views on this and the Gatwick alternative so as to inform the Parliamentary debate?”
  • “The Government wants to expand Heathrow, but only subject to environmental and other safeguards (eg Air Quality). Please give us your views as to whether these can be reasonably delivered?”

Which will it be?

And can it be organised so as to meet the demanding requirements of the doctrine of legitimate expectation? And the hugely important Gunning Principles? And the demanding Aarhus Convention rules means that it must factor a significant independent element in the exercise.

If the Government gets the next consultation wrong, it could be mired in legal challenges for years to come.

Don’t expect to book tickets from the new runway just yet!

 

About the Author

Rhion Jones is considered a leading authority on Public Engagement and Consultation. A founding Director of the Consultation Institute, he is co-author of “The Art of Consultation” (2009) and “The Politics of Consultation” (2018). He has delivered over 500 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 350 different Topic papers and over 50 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 15,000 person-days of training based on courses he invented have been delivered. Rhion is in demand as an entertaining Keynote Speaker and Special Adviser, particularly on the Law of Consultation, and its implications for Government and other Public Bodies. In 2017, he was awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

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