Airports Commission recommends third runway at Heathrow but with environmental conditions attached
Thu 2 Jul 2015 — The UK Government-appointed Airports Commission has come down in favour of a new third northwest runway at London’s Heathrow Airport as providing the best option in terms of benefiting the national economy and international air transport connectivity. However, the Commission recommends a number of measures, some legally enforced, to address Heathrow’s impacts on the local environment and communities. These include a night-time ban on scheduled flights between 2330 and 0600, a ‘noise envelope’ that stipulates no overall increase above current levels, a new aviation noise charge or levy used to compensate local communities, the formation of a community engagement board and an independent aviation noise authority.
After considering more than 50 proposals to increase the UK’s aviation capacity, including a new airport in the Thames Estuary to the east of London, the Commission shortlisted three options: an additional northwest runway at Heathrow and an extension to an existing runway, and a second runway at Gatwick Airport. The Commission’s final report submitted yesterday considers all three to be operationally and commercially viable. However, it has concluded “the environmental impacts of expansion at Heathrow, once effective mitigations and generous provision for compensation are in place, do not outweigh its very significant national and local benefits.”
The Commission says the Heathrow runway extension scheme would cost less to build and cause the loss of fewer homes than a new runway but would deliver a lower capacity, a higher number of people within the highest noise contours close to the airport and greater air quality challenges.
It considers that over the coming decades the noise impacts of Heathrow are likely to reduce considerably as newer and quieter aircraft come into service and as flight paths are redesigned and improved.
On the highly contentious issue of air quality, the Commission believes there will be future improvements around Heathrow, even with additional runway capacity. However, it calls for firm action by the airport operator to ensure emissions associated with the airport are minimised, along with national action on air quality related to road transport. “Any new capacity should only be released when it is clear that air quality around the airport will not delay compliance with EU limits,” says the report.
Expansion at Heathrow, it contends, should be treated as a unique opportunity to change the way the airport operates and be taken forward as a broader package that addresses environmental, social and economic impacts. This would include a legally binding ‘noise envelope’ that could stipulate the total number of people affected by noise under expansion should be no higher than it is today. “Capping noise levels ensures that the airport and the airlines must become more noise efficient if the airport is to grow,” suggests the Commission.
As well as a ban on scheduled night flights, the Government is encouraged to introduce a noise charge or levy to ensure that airport users pay more to compensate local communities, following the examples followed in France and the USA. The suggested independent aviation noise authority should advise on the design of the charge and local people should be able to see how funds are used. These measures should be accompanied by a community engagement board based on a model adopted at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to oversee issues such as compensation schemes. The Government should also firmly commit to rule out any fourth runway at Heathrow, “for which there is no operational or environmental case,” it adds.
On aviation’s impact on climate change, the Commission is less clear in its justification for expansion and appears not to offer a view on whether the sector can expect to meet reduction targets. The report says it has developed two sets of forecasts based on recommendations by the UK Government’s climate advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which specifies a planning assumption for the aviation sector that requires gross CO2 emissions to total no more than 37.5 million tonnes by 2050. One forecast assumes an international carbon trading mechanism will be introduced and the other a firm cap is put in place.
“Our new plans have been designed around the needs of local communities and will meet carbon, air quality and noise targets, and provides the greatest benefit to the UK’s connectivity and its long term economic growth,” claimed John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Heathrow Airport. “We will create the world’s best connected, most efficient and most environmentally responsible hub airport at the heart of an integrated transport system.”
The Commission’s unequivocal backing for a new third Heathrow runway is supported by business interests, trade unions and most airlines.
Although the Commission’s report says Heathrow’s benefits were “significantly greater” than Gatwick’s, the latter’s “plausible case for expansion” was cause for its CEO, Stewart Wingate, to claim Gatwick was “still very much in the race” and the Government would choose his airport for expansion as the only deliverable option. “The report underplays the massive environmental challenges of air quality and noise at Heathrow,” he said. “They are huge.”
His view was shared by John Stewart of HACAN, which has long campaigned against expansion of Heathrow. “This is far from the end of the story,” he said. “It will be the Government that makes the final decision and given the strong opposition in the cabinet to Heathrow, the final chapter may come out in favour of Gatwick.”
A number of prominent Government MPs and some ministers have constituencies around both airports and expansion at either is highly uncertain, despite the nearly three years of work carried out by the Commission at a cost of £20 million ($30m). The Mayor of London and a major political player, Boris Johnson, whose own plan for a new airport in the Thames Estuary was rejected by the Commission, said expanding Heathrow was “too environmentally damaging.”
National aviation environmental campaign organisation AEF urged the Government to reject the Commission’s recommendation and all runway expansion as the options would breach CO2 limits and have unacceptable local environmental impacts.
“The recommendation to expand Heathrow will be fiercely resisted by local authorities, MPs, Communities and environmental organisations,” said Cait Hewitt, AEF Deputy Director. “Every government that has ever considered Heathrow expansion has ruled it out once the full scale of the environmental impacts has become clear.”
The Government’s transport minister said yesterday a formal response to the recommendation would be made in the autumn.