2016 taught us the folly of making predictions. If anybody had put a bet on Leicester City winning the League, the UK leaving Europe, Donald Trump becoming the US President and a Briton ending up as the number one tennis player in the world, they would be almost rich enough to pay for Heathrow’s advertising blitz that helped secure it the third runway decision!
So no predictions. Just a few thoughts about what 2017 might have in store for a third runway at Heathrow.
In January the Government is expected to publish its National Policy Statement (NPS) on Airports. It will go out to public consultation for several months. Essentially, it will only be about the third runway. In the summer Parliament’s Transport Select Committee will look at the NPS and Parliament will vote on it late this year or early 2018.
Even if Parliament gives it the go-ahead, that is not the end of the matter. In 2018/19 Heathrow will need to draw up detailed plans for the new runway, including flight paths, to go out to public consultation before being presented to a planning inquiry.
Despite the Government’s 2016 decision in its favour, I’m not at all certain the third runway is in the bag for Heathrow. It has climbed a lot of hurdles. The advertising jibe is probably a little unfair because behind the scenes it has put in a huge amount of work on its third runway proposals.
But, speaking with journalists, politicians and many residents, there is the belief that a lot of hurdles still need to be cleared. The cost of the road and rail infrastructure required for a new runway has still not been nailed down. We can expect campaigners and politicians to continue to ask hard questions about it.
There is also the fact that the Government has reduced its estimate of the benefits of a third runway to £61bn (over a 60 year period) from the Airports Commission’s figure of £211bn. Heathrow’s promises to the regions of jobs and prosperity were based on the higher figure. Where does that leave those promises now?
There remains significant local opposition to a new runway. The lobby group Back Heathrow is right to point out that polls taken in the seven boroughs closest to the airport show over 40% in favour with around a third against. Yet the figures haven’t changed over ten years: Heathrow’s polling in 2007 showed much the same result.
What Back Heathrow has done – and has done well – is highlight, and, to some extent, give a voice to those who want a new runway. What we haven’t seen is any real increase in the numbers backing a third runway.
The opposition to it remains significant, simply because a lot of people have a lot to lose if a third runway goes ahead – particularly those living in West London and Berkshire:
- the Heathrow villagers who are determined to preserve their homes and community
- the residents who know they will be under a busy flight path for the first time
- the West Londoners who fear they will lose part of their half day’s break from the noise
Ironically, one of the constituencies with most to lose would be the Prime Minister’s own: Maidenhead.
In order to mitigate the impact of a third runway, Heathrow has agreed to the conditions set out by the Government and originally proposed by the Airports Commission. They include an extension of the night period when no scheduled flights will be permitted. I’m certain that during the consultation on the third runway, due to start in late January, campaigners and local authorities will seek to strengthen these conditions should a new runway ever be built.
What is hampering Heathrow – and it is particularly obvious around the conditions – is a lack of trust in what it says. It comes from a terrible legacy of broken promises which Heathrow now openly acknowledges. My own view – which I’m very aware is not shared by all my fellow campaigners – is that Heathrow has learnt from the past. Heathrow realized that it had to learn the hard lessons. If it failed to do so, any further growth would be all but impossible.
My feeling is that under John Holland-Kaye Heathrow has become a progressive company. That’s not saying I’m flying any flag for a third runway. It is saying I believe it is worth putting time and effort into getting strengthened conditions in the event of a third runway going ahead.
Heathrow faces opposition from two other important quarters.
The local authorities, along with Greenpeace, will be mounting a legal challenge to the Government’s decision to favour a third runway.
And the direct action movement will not go away. A new generation of direct action protesters is emerging. They are part of a wider climate change movement which also uses civil disobedience to oppose things like fracking. I’ve taken a vow not to make predictions in this blog but I’d be surprised if Heathrow wasn’t facing a year-long campaign of direct action in 2017.
I’m glad I’m not making predictions. All I can say is that by the end of the year we are likely to be in a better position to know which hurdles will still be standing.