Simon Carr: Coming down to earth from Air Force One

Cameron promised environmentally sensitive planning mixed with a bit of 'Victorian swagger'

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The Independent Online

What a job it is being Prime Minister. One minute you're flying Air Force One with the jet fighters covering your tail and the Free World spread out 30,000ft below you – and the next you're in a London basement talking to a lot of civil engineers about the A14.

We mortals might be able to do one or the other but not both, and certainly not everything in between. Imagine having to pitch "a planning system that unlocks sustainable development". People would edge away.

But there he was, doing the prime ministerial thing (urgent but long term, daring but prudent, passionate but sympathetic, present but a little bit absent) promising to be environmentally sensitive while offering a bit of "Victorian swagger" in our new infrastructure strategy. That would be good. Brunel built the Great Western Railway with all its stations and cuttings in less time than the planning process for Terminal Five. How were we going to be like that again?

We didn't get a particular answer but in general – "We will risk unpopularity," he declared. "I think we've demonstrated that already with..." (Please finish that thought with your own medley).

He had future generations in mind when he refused to leave them with the "consequences of our own cowardice".

So what was the daring innovation? What did he have to light a tall fire in the mind? There was offshore windpower – "one of the fastest growing energy sources" (from almost nothing to almost something is, it's true, an enormous leap).

He didn't rely on the Boris Island airport. He didn't willingly bring that up. No mention of shale gas – the thing that could be North Sea oil again. Neither was there anything specific about our giant squid of a planning system.

No, the big idea was to follow the famous success of our privatised water companies. And by their operating practice ban motorway use when people most want to use them. During public holidays, perhaps, and rush hours.

There was some talk about road tolls – but "only for new capacity". Gary Gibbon of C4 applied a rather brilliant analysis to this. Did that mean, he asked, that a road with a bit of new capacity such as half a mile of dual carriageway or the new use of the hard shoulder – would these roads suddenly be tolled?

The PM seemed to dismiss this but repeated carefully that they "won't be putting road tolls on the existing capacity".

It wasn't like this on Air Force One. It's coming down to earth with a bump.

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