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Heathrow airport may have government approval, but it’s a long way from take off

Yui Mok PA Wire/PA Images

Heathrow airport may have government approval, but it’s a long way from take off

Theresa May’s cabinet has endorsed the proposal to build a third runway at Heathrow. It follows 15 years of deliberations over where to expand the UK’s airport capacity. But the decision is less the beginning of the end than the end of the beginning.

The government “approval” still has to be voted through parliament – not scheduled until late next year – and plans for the new runway must also go through a rigorous planning approval process.

There has been much agonising, mainly on account of the environmental impact – noise and local air pollution – of adding capacity to an already large airport within the bounds of London. MPs that represent affected constituencies are generally opposed, including foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and education secretary, Justine Greening.

Residents and anti-Heathrow protestors. Yui Mok PA Wire/PA Images

They have been given freedom to object to the decision for a limited time – in aberration of the ministerial code of collective responsibility, which requires cabinet ministers to support government positions. London mayor, Sadiq Khan, is also opposed, preferring expansion at Gatwick, well away from his domain.

But Heathrow is the decision favoured by big business. It was also the recommendation of the Airports Commission – the independent report commissioned by the government to propose the best solution to the country’s airport capacity problem.

Next steps

The process for delivering planning consent for airport expansion will involve an airports “national policy statement”. This is the process that all big infrastructure projects must go through whereby the government sets out its case for the project, followed by public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny, before the policy statement is finalised.

These national policy statements are a statutory requirement. They provide the framework within which planning inspectors make their recommendations, and are intended to prevent national issues being reopened at a later stage.

Consultation on the Heathrow policy statement would probably take around a year, given the range and contention of the issues involved, and would allow all parties to have their say. Concerns about local air pollution will be prominent. Expect there to be debate, for example, over unpublished (and disputed) research by the University of Cambridge, which finds that the marginal increase in nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) pollution associated with airport expansion would be against the background of reduced NO₂ from other traffic, if Heathrow was expanded.

Aerial view of Heathrow. Konstantin Von Wedelstaedt

There are also questions about the affordability of a third runway at Heathrow. Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways, has questioned the costs of expansion and the impact on landing charges. He said: “I honestly can’t see how you can spend that much money on an airport and not discourage people from flying there.”

Gatwick – the alternative option – is unlikely to cease campaigning in the meantime. It has argued vigorously that it should be allowed to add another runway, which would be built faster, be less costly and have less of an f an environmental impact than Heathrow.

An issue for the draft national policy statement is whether Gatwick should have the option of expanding, as well as Heathrow, to achieve more competition. This, however, could lead to the owners of Stansted Airport launching a legal challenge, on the grounds that it has not been given the opportunity to present its own case for expansion.

A long way to go

When it is scrutinised in parliament, the Heathrow expansion plans will face probing questions, not least from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Heathrow, which has already identified 16 serious risks that could stop or delay expansion. As well as the pollution issue, these include concerns about excessive noise, and a whole variety of likely legal challenges. It will then face a vote, which is likely to be a free one to allow dissenting Conservative MPs to register the unhappiness of their constituents – so no assured outcome here.

Evidently, there is a long way to go before construction could start at Heathrow. The timeline includes publication of the draft airports national policy statement, public consultation, the government’s response, parliamentary scrutiny and endorsement (all of which could take a year), a public examination by a planning inspector of the detailed plans (which could take another year), the inspector’s report, and the final decision of the secretary of state for transport.

In the meantime, the finances would need to be agreed, including the necessary increase in airport landing charges to recover the costs, as well as the issue of who pays for surface transport provision.

It is worth recalling that planning consent for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station was originally given in 1990, following a year-long public inquiry. Agreement to begin construction was reached only in September 2016. The delay was mainly due to difficulties about financing a plant that generates high cost electricity, but it is a salutary warning of the length of time it can take for large and contentious infrastructure proposals to even get to the point of starting construction.