Third Runway not a done deal

On the day that the consultation about a third runway closes it is still my view that a new runway at Heathrow is far from a done deal.

There are still many hurdles for the airport to overcome.  So far it has got over just two of them: the recommendation of a third runway by the Airports Commission in July 2015 and then last October the announcement from Theresa May that a new runway at Heathrow was her Government’s preferred option.  

The next big hurdle will be the vote in Parliament later this year or early next year.  Technically, it is a vote on the National Policy Statement on Airports (NPS) but in reality it is about a third runway.  It would be a surprise, though, if Heathrow falls at this hurdle.  With a majority of Conservative and Labour MPs expected to back the NPS is likely to be approved.

Perhaps the one thing which could alter this, or certainly reduce the majority, is the growing realization that the economic benefits of a third runway have been significantly downgraded.  The Airports Commission put them at £211bn (over a 60 year period).  The Department for Transport now says they will be no more than £61bn, and a lot less if the costs of noise, air pollution etc are taken into account.  Heathrow’s promises to the regions were based on the higher figure.  There are signs that it is beginning to hit home to MPs representing these areas that the benefits to them might be a lot less than they were led to believe.

Even if a third runway does scale the NPS hurdle it could emerge as a different beast.  A number of MPs with whom HACAN has spoken are attracted by the idea of making their vote for a third runway dependent on tougher conditions than the Department for Transport is promising.  For example, there is growing backing for a night flight ban to be longer than six and a half hours.

But beyond the NPS further hurdles remain.

There will almost certainly be a legal challenge by Greenpeace and a number of local authorities.  The case will be led by the same legal team which mounted a successful challenge to the last Labour Government’s plans for a third runway 10 years ago so the chance of it succeeding cannot be discounted.  Certainly a number of the local authority leaders believe they have a strong case.  It would need, though, to be a decisive win to deal a knock-out blow to a third runway rather than simply force the Government to come back with an amended scheme.

Air pollution will continue to cast a pall of uncertainty over the third runway.  The previous Government’s air quality strategy, published a few weeks ago, appeared to suggest air pollution around Heathrow could not be sorted until at least 2030 – five years after the new runway would be due to open.  Governments can often wriggle out of environmental problems but its wriggle-room on air pollution may be limited given the fact air pollution is such a high-profile issue, certainly in London.  It is much less dominant outside the capital where leaders tend to see it as largely a London problem. 

A third hurdle is the continuing uncertainty over the costs of the road and rail infrastructure needed to serve a new runway:  how high will they be and who will pay them?  The consultation document did not clarify either question.  The costs have been put at anything between £5bn and £18bn.  Heathrow has said it will only pay its share of the costs which it puts at £  I would not argue that Heathrow should pay all the costs because the wider economy will also benefit from the new road and rail schemes but until it is clear what costs will fall on the public purse and whether the new Government will be prepared to pay them, this remains a hurdle in the path of a third runway.

The final hurdle is the continuing opposition to a third runway.  I suspect we will only be able to gauge the actual strength of this opposition when more will be known about flight paths next year.  Heathrow is trying to involve the community as closely as possible in developing its flight paths (flight paths will change significantly even at a two runway airport due to the introduction of new technology).  This makes sense but they know and we know it is flight paths which are most likely get local communities truly engaged in the issue.  The flight paths hurdle is the joker in the pack. Nobody really knows how it will play out. 

So, as we await a new Government in a few weeks, we are about mid-point in the hurdles race and still uncertain if any of them will trip up Heathrow’s plans.  As a boy I thrilled to David Hemery’s gold medal win in the 800 metres hurdles in the 1968 Olympics – (worth watching if only for David Coleman’s legendary commentary).  Hemery dominated the field.  If Heathrow get to the finishing tape, it will be a very different type of race: one hurdle, one formidable challenge, at a time.  And there are still plenty of them to come.   

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