Fri 11 Dec 2015 – The UK Government has accepted the case for airport expansion in the south-east of England but has postponed a decision on where that expansion should take place until the middle of next year at the earliest. The report of the Airports Commission published in the summer had firmly recommended a new third runway at Heathrow but the Government has reopened the door to the viability of two other schemes shortlisted by the Commission, a second runway at Gatwick and the extension of an existing runway at Heathrow that could simultaneously handle both incoming and outgoing aircraft. The Government says more work needs to be done to analyse the environmental impacts of the expansion proposals, in particular on local air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, and is expecting the airports to submit “ambitious solutions” to tackle the issue.
Heathrow is now all but full to capacity and Gatwick is nearing that point, concluded the 340-page final report from the Airports Commission, which was led by economist Sir Howard Davies. “There is still capacity elsewhere in the South-East for point-to-point and especially low-cost flights, but with no availability at its main hub airport, London is beginning to find that new routes to important long-haul destinations are set up elsewhere in Europe rather than in the UK,” wrote Davies in the report’s foreword.
Without quick action, the situation would continue to deteriorate and the entire London system would be full by 2040, he added. “So a new runway is needed by 2030, which means a firm decision is needed soon, as bringing it into operation will take a decade or more.”
The Government now says it agrees that more runway capacity is required by 2030 but is concerned that environmental objections could bog down the planning consent process for many years.
“The case for aviation expansion is clear – but it’s vitally important we get the decision right so that it will benefit generations to come,” said Patrick McLoughlin, Secretary of State for Transport. “We will undertake more work on environmental impacts, including air quality, noise and carbon. We must develop the best possible package of measures to mitigate the impacts on local people. We will continue work on all the shortlisted locations, so that the timetable for more capacity set out by Sir Howard is met.”
The Department for Transport said it would test the air quality analysis carried out by the Commission using the latest projected future concentrations of nitrogen dioxide. The next step is to continue to develop the best possible package of measures to mitigate the impacts on local people and the environment, said a DfT statement. This, it added, would include a package for local communities to include compensation, maximising local economic opportunities through new jobs and apprenticeships, and measures to tackle noise.
“The Government will do this quickly so that the timetable for delivering capacity set out by the Airports Commission can be met,” said the DfT.
The Commission’s report claimed that one new runway, fully utilised, was compatible with continued progress towards reducing carbon emissions and said Heathrow would need new measures to ensure acceptable air quality around the airport, which already breaches EU regulations. However, the Commission stands accused by campaign group Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) of failing to show how a new runway could be in line with Government commitments on air pollution and climate change.
“The challenges of addressing the environmental impacts of a new runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick are no less significant than they were when the [previous] Coalition Government ruled out expansion for environmental reasons in 2010,” said AEF Deputy Director, Cait Hewitt. “The current Government should do the same.”
The all-party House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, which held an inquiry into the environmental implications of the Commission’s recommendations, advised the Government in a report last month that before making a final decision it should set out “clear and binding responsibilities and milestones to ensure environmental standards are enforced and measures can be implemented, monitored and evaluated in a timely way.” A failure to do so, it warned, could see the project caught up in protracted legal disputes, lead to environmental standards being missed and introduce an element of commercial risk.
The Committee also took issue with the Commission’s assertion that expansion was compatible with Government carbon emission policies. “This is a major concern and the Government should demonstrate at the earliest opportunity it can close that gap by setting out its approach to international negotiations on aviation emissions and putting in place a strategy to deliver aviation emissions by 2050 no higher than those in 2005,” it said.
If Heathrow was the chosen option, it called on the Government to re-examine the Commission’s findings on air quality and set out its assessment of what would be required in terms of infrastructure improvements, agreed responsibilities for funding and milestones for completion. On noise, the Committee supported the Commission’s proposed ban on night flights at Heathrow, the establishment of an independent aviation noise authority and a community engagement board, whether or not expansion was given the green light.
Meanwhile, the Chair of the House of Commons Transport Committee, Louise Ellman MP, criticised the decision to delay and said the environmental impacts of expansion were not new concerns. “The Government should have used the time since the Commission’s report to conduct the necessary environmental assessment rather than waiting until now to announce that it is going to start this work,” she said. “The Government has failed to give a firm commitment on when a decision will be taken; in the meantime our competitors will continue to build their links with emerging markets.”
Many commentators believe the delay is in large part driven by the London mayoral election next May in which the ruling Conservative party candidate is a fervent opponent to Heathrow expansion.
However, the Government’s new assertion that all three shortlisted runway proposals are still in the running, despite the Commission firmly supporting the case for a new Heathrow northwest runway, is good news for Gatwick, which has long claimed it is the only politically and environmentally viable option.
“This is a defining moment in the expansion debate. There is now a clear choice facing Britain: growth with Gatwick or inertia at Heathrow with an illegal scheme that has failed time and time again,” commented Gatwick Airport CEO Stewart Wingate on the Government announcement. “We have always maintained that this decision is about balancing the economy and the environment. Expansion at Gatwick would give the country the economic benefit it needs at a dramatically lower environmental cost.
“We are glad that the Government recognises that more work on environmental impact needs to be done. Air quality, for example, is a public health priority and obviously the legal safeguards around it cannot be wished away.
“Even Heathrow’s most vocal supporters must now realise a third runway at Heathrow will never take off as the environmental hurdles are just too high. If they want Britain to have the benefits of expansion and competition they should now look to Gatwick.”
Heathrow counters that it is fully confident that expansion can be delivered within environmental limits. The airport said it will now move into the delivery phase and put into motion “billions of pounds” of contracts to deliver what it claims will be the largest privately financed infrastructure project in the country.
“Our new plan will connect the whole nation to global growth while providing opportunities for the local community and making Heathrow the most environmentally responsible hub airport in the world,” said Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye. “I am confident we can meet tough environmental standards.”
He told the BBC: “By making sure we can meet these standards and spending a few more months getting it right, we can avoid wasting time in judicial reviews later.”
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