by John Stewart
A third runway at Heathrow could still be a decade away. That’s even if it gets the final green light from the Secretary of State for Transport in 2021 following the public inquiry which is expected to start later this year. It had been scheduled to open in 2026 but now it could be 2029. That’s because the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced shortly before Chistmas that it had refused Heathrow permission to spend the money it wanted on a third runway before final permission has been granted.
As I a long-time opponent of a third runway I should be delighted. But, although I know delay is a tried and tested – and sometimes successful – tactic used to a stop major development, I’m uneasy about the prospect of a delay. Too much is hold until the runway is either built or abandoned. And not just for the obvious players: Heathrow as well as many businesses and some other airports who would plan differently if a third runway was dropped; but also for many communities, including many of the people who HACAN represents.
It is not unlike Brexit. Except for committed remainers, there seems to be general relief that a clear decision on Brexit will now be taken. The uncertainty was hurting.
A lot of residents are hurting waiting for some certainty around a third runway. A couple of weekends ago I visited some of our members who live not far from Brixton in South London. They’ve had all-day flying for years. During my visit the noise was constant.
They suspect nothing will change in the short-term because the aviation industry is focused on plans for a third runway, designing its flight paths and a new night flight regime on the basis it will happen. For them, those changes may be potentially beneficial: a longer night period without planes and an end to all-day flying as multiple routes are introduced in order to provide them with respite they’ve been wanting for years. If a runway is to be given permission, they would prefer it – and the changes it would usher in – to open in 2026 rather than 2029.
Big decisions hang on the timing. One woman told me she could not face another decade of unremmiting noise and would need to move away whereas five or six years might just be about bearable.
They need to know what will happen to them if the third runway is dropped. They know that new flight paths, driven by new satellite-based technology, will come in whether or not as third runway will be built. But all the current focus is on how to coordinate the flight paths of a 3-runway Heathrow with the new flight paths being introduced at the other airports in London and the South East. A huge undertaking which would probably need to start from scratch if Heathrow remained a 2-runway airport.
On Friday I received two emails, one from a woman in Lewisham, the other from a couple in Chiswick wanting to move but not knowing where to go because of the continuing uncertainty about where new flight paths will be and when they will be introduced. They feel in limbo.
This uncertainty is perhaps most stark for those whose homes are threatened by the runway. Some don’t want to move; others are prepared to take the offer on the table; but most want some certainty so they can plan their future.
If a third runway means you will be under a flight path for the first time, or if a third runway will mean more planes over your home, or if you are a climate campainger, delay is important.
But we need to recognise many communities want an early decision – one way or another. Their lives are on hold – and often dominated by unremitting noise which nobody feels they can do anything about until a decision is made.
It is not always easy for campaigners to understand that it is not just many in business and the aviation industry who want a clear decision on a third runway soon. It is also many local communities.