Government policy on airport expansion has shifted in recent months. Aviation minister Simon Burns outlined the latest thinking to the Airport Operators Association in London yesterday. This is what he said

Transport doesn’t just support growth. It creates it . . . [But] for decades, Britain has failed to invest in transport infrastructure and we are paying the price today in lost growth.

It’s why we are investing in our roads and railways, to reduce congestion and overcrowding, and link businesses with buyers.

It’s why we are investing in a new high speed rail network.

And it is why – in a fast-changing industry like aviation – we need a clear strategy to boost passenger service and maintain our excellent air links with the rest of the world.

But any such strategy needs to stand firm over a period of more than a decade – and across several General Elections. It is important we take the time to get this right and to build a strong consensus of opinion behind the best option.

There has been real progress under this government. We are taking forward the Civil Aviation Bill to modernise the regulatory framework for civil aviation.

The recommendations of the South East Airports Taskforce are being implemented, including a trial of operational freedoms at Heathrow to improve reliability and reduce delay.

We’ve announced a number of short-term measures to improve operations and stimulate growth, including £500m towards a western rail link to Heathrow, a review of the UK’s visa regime and the recruitment of extra border staff at Heathrow.

And in July we published a draft Aviation Policy Framework and have put it out for public consultation – so that the final Framework can be adopted by the end of March 2013. The final version of this document will be a formal statement of government policy.

These improvements are timely and necessary. But they will not on their own solve our long-term connectivity and capacity issues.

The UK is one of the best connected countries on earth. London has more flights to more destinations than any other city in Europe.

We are fortunate to have so many flights to important trading partners – and global financial centres – like New York, Singapore and Hong Kong.

New routes and services continue to be added. From the end of this month the UK will be served by daily flights to Guangzhou – a city that has been held up in the past as an example of our national failure to secure routes into the developing Chinese market. New services to Mexico City were announced only last week.

UK aviation is not only about the southeast of England. We are fortunate to have so many excellent airports outside London.

However, the growth of airports throughout the UK cannot disguise the wider reality that Britain has failed to follow Germany, France and the Netherlands in planning for our long-term connectivity needs.

The danger is we risk seeing our direct European competitors benefit more from the fast-growing markets of emerging economies.

So we are absolutely clear. Maintaining the UK’s status as a leading global aviation hub is fundamental to our long term international competitiveness.

Yet – at the same time – we must take full account of the social, environmental and other impacts of any expansion in airport capacity.

This is one of the most difficult debates in transport. Few other issues have the same potential to provoke a divided response.

Successive governments have sought to develop a credible long-term aviation policy, and in each case the policy has failed – trust in the process has broken down, consensus on the evidence has drained away or it has proved too difficult to sustain a long-term policy through a change of government.

Not only can the aviation industry ill afford this indecision, the country can’t afford it. So the government has asked Sir Howard Davies to chair an independent Airports Commission.

Sir Howard’s remit is to identify and recommend the options for maintaining this country’s status as a global hub for aviation. The Commission will also evaluate how any additional capacity requirements should be met in the short, medium and long term.

The Coalition Agreement is clear and continues to represent the position of this government. But the Commission must consider all options if it is to reach the best conclusions.

That includes a third runway at Heathrow, and schemes in the Thames Gateway proposed by the Mayor of London and by [architect] Norman Foster.

The Commission will be fair and open, taking account of the views of passengers, residents, the aviation industry, business, local and devolved government and environmental groups.

An interim report will be prepared for government no later than the end of 2013, and a final report by the summer of 2015.

We will be in a position to tell you more about the membership of the Commission and its terms of reference in the next few weeks. The Commission’s work will not clash in any way with the draft Aviation Policy Framework.

When we publish the final Policy Framework next year, it will establish the high-level aviation policy of this government. That means it will set the parameters within which Sir Howard will consider the aviation needs of this country.

I can’t speculate on what the conclusions of the Commission will be. But what I can assure you of is the importance of this work.

We will seek to involve the Opposition throughout the process. And I hope all main parties will back Sir Howard’s findings – because it’s crucial we make a commitment that transcends party politics.

The Olympics have shown what we can do if we are willing to make big decisions, work together and stay the course.

It is that same spirit that we need to foster once conclusions have been drawn from the work of the Commission and the Aviation Policy Framework.

  • This is an edited extract of aviation minister Simon Burns speech. Full text at www.dft.gov.uk/