Out-Law News 4 min. read

Airports Commission calls on government to back new Heathrow runway

The Airports Commission has recommended that the UK government support plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport, but said a number of measures are necessary to address the impact the additional capacity would have on the environment and local community.

The Commission, tasked with recommending how the UK can address its airport capacity needs and maintain the UK’s status as global hub for aviation, said that alternative proposals to build a new runway at Gatwick Airport or to extend the existing northern runway at Heathrow to enable it to be operated as two independent runways were both "credible" options.

Sir Howard Davies, who led the Commission's review, said: "Heathrow is best-placed to provide the type of capacity which is most urgently required: long haul destinations to new markets. It provides the greatest benefits for business passengers, freight operators and the broader economy."

In its report, the Commission said the government can help smooth the process for planning consents for Heathrow's expansion.

"There are two main routes for seeking planning consent: through a National Policy Statement and Development Consent Order or through a Hybrid Bill," the Commission said. "The decision on this should form part of a wider discussion between the airport and the government on how to take the scheme forward. The government could also deposit a ‘Paving Bill’ or table a motion in parliament to set out its early commitment to progressing the Commission’s recommendations."

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said a "clear direction on the government's plans" can be expected this autumn.

"There are a number of things we need to make progress on now," McLoughlin said. "First, we must study the substantial and innovative evidence base the Commission has produced. Second we will need to decide on the best way for achieving planning consents quickly and fairly if expansion is to go ahead. Third, we will come back to parliament in the autumn to provide clear direction on the government’s plans."

Infrastructure expert Richard Laudy of Pinsent Masons said UK trade with Asia is "at stake" if the UK does not "maintain a world-class UK hub airport".

"If we disconnect from the world's fastest growing markets, we lose," Laudy said. "The risk is that the decision on airport capacity will now get long grassed as politicians consider what is politically deliverable. However, we expect that the recommendations will be very difficult to challenge. The commercial and economic argument in favour of Heathrow is unassailable, yet we see what is best for Britain subordinated to what is politically deliverable." 

“How the recommendations are addressed over the next few months will reflect on the government's appetite to maintain the UK's global competitiveness and its desire to improve Britain's infrastructure. We now need decisive action to study the report and then take it forward and make a clear decision. Long-term infrastructure planning and the global competitiveness of the UK is at stake if we don't progress airport expansion swiftly," he said.

Laudy added that he expects Gatwick Airport to be expanded some time in the future "as we need to improve our infrastructure across the country if Britain is to continue to be an attractive place to live and do business".

In its report, the Commission said that a new northwest runway at Heathrow would allow the current capacity of "air traffic movements" at the airport each year – the number of landings and take-offs that can be accommodated – to be extended from 480,000 currently to potentially 740,000. The Commission forecast that Heathrow passenger numbers could rise from approximately 70 million in 2014 to more than 100m by 2030 and more than 130m by 2050 as a result of the additional capacity.

"By providing capacity for an additional 260,000 air traffic movements a year, including a large number of additional slots in the morning and evening peak periods, there would be significant opportunities to establish new links, particularly on the long-haul routes needed for the UK to prosper in an increasingly integrated global economy, drawing on both an unrivalled origin-and-destination market and an expanding pool of transfer passengers," the Commission said in its report. "It would also enable new entrants, including low cost carriers, to establish themselves at the airport, provide healthy competition for incumbent airlines, and support continuing growth in its freight operations."

"While expansion at Gatwick would also deliver improvements in the UK’s aviation capacity and connectivity, these would be more likely to be focused on short-haul and European links," it said.

The Commission acknowledged that pushing ahead with any of the three shortlisted plans to expand capacity at either Heathrow or Gatwick would have an impact on the environment and local communities. It has said that a number of measures should be introduced to limit the impact of a new Heathrow runway.

Among its recommendations, the Commission said that the company that owns Heathrow Airport should pay compensation at above market rate to home owners who would have to move house as a result of the new runway being installed and that they should fund "noise insulation" for other local residents. It also said binding noise level limits should be set at Heathrow and recommended that the government "introduce a noise levy or charge at major UK airports to ensure that airport users pay more to compensate local communities".

The Commission also said there should be a ban on scheduled flights taking off or landing between 11:30pm and 6:00am at Heathrow once the new runway is operational.

"The additional capacity [the new runway at Heathrow] would provide in the period from 6:00am … could enable airlines to re-time very early morning arrivals to a less disturbing time for local residents but one which remains attractive to customers – an option not currently open to them without cancelling other services," it said.

The government should also "make a firm commitment in parliament", through a policy statement or via legislation, not to expand Heathrow's capacity further in future, the Commission said. It said there is "no sound operational or environmental case" for a fourth runway at Heathrow".

"This is a detailed and comprehensive report, based on a significant volume of technical material, and the government will need to review our analysis carefully," Sir Howard Davies said. "The Commission urges it not to prolong this process, however, and to move as quickly as it can to a decision. Further delay will be increasingly costly and will be seen, nationally and internationally, as a sign that the UK is unwilling or unable to take the steps needed to maintain its position as a well-connected, open trading economy in the twenty-first century."

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