Energy & environment

The Runway Wars

The debate over which London airport will be earmarked for a new runway, Heathrow or Gatwick, has reached fever pitch with the publication of the Davies report. The report recommended a third runway at Heathrow – but with the government yet to make its decision, it seems there is everything left to play for. AIR investigates.

On July 1st, the Airports Commission announced a ‘clear and unanimous’ verdict on the issue of London’s airspace capacity. According to its final report, a third runway should be built at Heathrow, subject to stringent conditions on air and noise pollution.

The Heathrow proposal – which was recommended ahead of plans to expand Gatwick – was touted as the most ‘effective and deliverable solution… [allowing] the UK to maintain its position as Europe’s most important aviation hub’.

John Holland-Kaye, Chief Executive of Heathrow Airport said: “This debate has never been about a runway, it’s been about the future we want for Britain. Expanding Heathrow will keep Britain as one of the world’s great trading nations, right at the heart of the global economy…The Commission has backed a positive and ambitious vision for Britain. We will now work with Government to deliver it.”

While the decision is sure to polarise campaigners, it has certainly been a long time coming. For the last few decades, London’s airport capacity has posed a nagging problem for governments: demand for air travel is rising, but new infrastructure comes at a cost.

Building a new runway can have a profound effect on nearby communities, including increased noise pollution and the potential demolition of homes. More broadly, there can be negative repercussions for the environment, reducing air quality and indirectly damaging people’s health. These factors are particularly salient in a region as congested as South East England, which has seen no new full-length runways for 70 years.

It is clear, however, that we have reached a point of no return. With both Heathrow and Gatwick nearing capacity, the entirety of London’s aviation system is projected to be full by 2040. What to do about it is a question in point.

No ifs, no buts

Plans for a third runway at Heathrow were first given the go-ahead in 2009, with support from businesses, the aviation industry and the Labour Government. However, this proposal was scrapped in 2010 when the coalition government came into power.

As leader of the opposition, David Cameron had claimed “no ifs, no buts, there’ll be no third runway at Heathrow”. Once in government, he bade his time on the issue by appointing the Airports Commission, led by Sir Howard Davies, to conduct an independent review. This review – which looked into noise, surface transport, employment, air quality, housing and local communities – got underway in late 2012.

The Heathrow third runway was just one proposal under scrutiny. Also in contention was plan for a second runway at Gatwick (which is well positioned to cater to the growth in intra-European leisure travel); the so-called ‘Heathrow Hub’ (which would entail extending both the existing runways and dividing them in two); and a brand new airport at Thames Estuary, which has been notoriously championed by Boris Johnson.

Gatwick or Heathrow?

While the report gives some credit to Gatwick, arguing that the airport ‘presents a plausible case for expansion’, it states that the Heathrow third runway proposal provides the greatest benefits overall. It claims that Heathrow will significantly increase capacity for business passengers and freight operators while aiding the broader economy. According to section 12.7 in the report, the extension could allow for as many as 260,000 extra flights a year.

If the plan goes ahead, it will cost £17bn, and entail demolishing 783 homes, as well as prompting serious questions about air quality. However, high estimates suggest it will also provide a £150bn boost to GDP over 60 years, enable a quarter of million more flights every year, and create 60-70,000 new jobs. Davies has said the scheme will be technically feasible and financeable by private investors.

To facilitate this expansion – and make it more palatable to local communities – the report includes a package of accompanying measures to mitigate the negatives. As well as suggesting a fourth runway be ruled out by law, it recommends ‘a ban on night flights, more reliable respite for overflown communities, a legally-enforced “noise envelope”, a statutory independent aviation noise authority, and a noise levy to fund a far stronger and more generous set of compensation and mitigation schemes.’ Measures to ensure acceptable air quality have also been proposed.

The end of the debate?

As the government considers these recommendations, it is expected to make clear that it isn’t bound by the findings of the report. Particularly bearing in mind the Tories’ earlier stance on Heathrow, it seems there is everything left to play for.

“This is not the final point in the aviation debate, it is really only the start,” said Dr Stuart Thomson, head of public affairs at Bircham Dyson Bell. “Heathrow will be overjoyed with the outcome but Gatwick will not give in without a serious fight, nor will the residents of West London, the Mayor of London, and maybe his successor. Deliverability is really the next stage. So now it is up to business, politicians, and other stakeholders to come behind the recommendation. That is a significant challenge.”

Certainly for environmental lobbyists, this is far from the end. According to WWF-UK Chief Executive David Nussbaum, the economic benefits of the proposal are overstated. He claims that, rather than making Britain more prosperous, a third runway will make it harder to meet air quality targets and necessitate emissions reductions elsewhere.

“Expanding Heathrow would be the worst outcome for the environment,” he said. “It would lead to the greatest increases in noise, in air pollution, and in climate-damaging CO2 emissions. It will make it impossible for the aviation sector to play its proper role in meeting the UK’s emissions targets, to which the Prime Minister and Climate Change Secretary are committed.”

Similarly, it is expected that Gatwick campaigners will seek to challenge the Davies report by means of a judicial review. Originally tipped for success by the bookies, the Gatwick proposal may look like a safer bet: while bringing fewer projected benefits for business, it is certainly less politically fraught, and perhaps more environmentally sound.

Decisive action

Whatever the government concludes, many people will be hoping for swift action. Talking exclusively to AIR, Angus Walker, partner and head of government and infrastructure at Bircham Dyson Bell, stressed that, now the report is firmly in the political arena, the government will be under pressure to decide sooner rather than later.

“It is probably the first big test of the new government,” he said. “The previous coalition government kicked the issue into the long grass by setting up the Airport Commission and saying it didn’t need to report until after the election, but this time it can’t really do that again. There’ll be an awful lot of pressure for them to quickly say whether they endorse that recommendation and help get that runway built.”

Should David Cameron back the third runway, it won’t necessarily entail backing down on his previous statement – the proposal in contention this time round is different from the one he rejected in 2009. That said, the next steps are unlikely to be politically straightforward, and may well to be subject to delay.

With the publication of the Davies report, we are somewhat closer to solving the conundrum of London’s airspace capacity. Still, as ever more commentators add dissenting voices into the mix, it is clear there is a long way left to go.

This article appears in the August 2015 edition of Airport Industry Review 

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