Video: Robbie Owen on Heathrow and the Infrastructure Commission

We are getting better at infrastructure delivery and a third runway could be built at Heathrow by 2020 Pinsent Masons’ senior partner Robbie Owen tells Antony Oliver.

Government has said it will make its decision on airport expansion before the end of the year. But what then, how much longer will it take before work can start on a new runway at Heathrow or wherever? Are we getting any better at getting projects through the planning process?

“It will be a test for the planning regime, the biggest test so far because a third runway at Heathrow is so big and so controversial."

The answer is yes from Pinsent Masons’ senior partner and head of infrastructure planning Robbie Owen. Speaking at the recent Runways UK event, he pointed out that 40 major projects have reached development consent since the UK’s new National Planning System was introduced in 2010, including the Thames Tideway Tunnels and Hinckley Point C.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we are now much better than we used to be in the bad old days, when there would be interminable public inquiries and inspection reports piled up and gathering dust for months and sometimes years,” Owen says.

But despite the new planning system, there is still an awful lot of process to go through. Could a project such as Heathrow expansion be a seminal moment in trying to accelerate delivery?

“It will be a test for the planning regime, the biggest test so far because a third runway at Heathrow is so big and so controversial. But HS2 is coping well. We are showing we can do these big projects if they are properly planned and managed, so I’m upbeat about it.”

Owen was instrumental in working with Sir John Armitt on the Labour Party’s proposals for a National Infrastructure Commission and identification and planning of the nation’s specific project needs over a much longer horizon. The idea would now seem to be well and truly filed, but not necessarily so, Owen says.

“We haven’t lost all hope of this and are looking to revive it under a slightly different basis, perhaps washing some of the red off it to make it more politically palatable. Certainly we think the rationale of having an independent body looking at the country’s long term infrastructure needs from an evidential basis is still necessary. We are looking at bringing forward new proposals, perhaps less clunky and more acceptable to this Government within the next six months.”

And finally, what about the prospects for Heathrow, will we see a third runway being built by 2025? “Yes, on balance I think we will,” Owen says.