The British Government has delayed a decision about whether to build a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport until the summer of 2016. This latest move follows decades of indecision about the best way to accommodate the air capacity needs of south-east England.
In July, an independent report by Sir Howard Davies’ Airport Commission recommended the construction of a third runway at Heathrow. However, it did not rule out the alternatives of building a second runway at Gatwick or extending one of Heathrow’s existing runways in what is known as the Heathrow Hub option.
Though Heathrow’s third runway campaign has enjoyed wide-ranging support from industry and airline representatives, the potential environmental problems associated with its expansion have been an ever-present worry for many interested parties and observers. These concerns have clearly been noted by the Government as the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, said it wanted to “undertake more work on environmental impacts, including air quality, noise and carbon” before making its decision about adding extra capacity in south-east England.
John Longworth, Director General of The British Chamber of Commerce, said: “Businesses will see this as a gutless move by a government that promised a clear decision on a new runway by the end of the year. Ministers need to stop prevaricating and get on with doing what the country sorely needs.”
However, some observers see the move as a way of delaying a decision until after the 2016 London mayoral election, even though both mayoral candidates are publicly opposed to expanding Heathrow
Dale Keller, Chief Executive of the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK (BAR UK) commented: “Our airline members are dismayed that the uncertainty and indecision over expanding Heathrow is set to continue into next summer for what appears to be local political reasons, rather than the need for further environmental analysis.” Conservative MP and London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith had previously threatened to resign if the government decided to build a third runway at Heathrow. He said the government was now in “the right place” [regarding airport expansion] adding the argument for a third runway at Heathrow was “in tatters”. Mr Goldsmith’s Labour opponent, Sadiq Khan, said he believed the Government had delayed in “order to avoid embarrassing their mayoral candidate.”
The present Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who opposes Heathrow expansion, told the BBC that there was “an element of political fudge-arama” about the decision, adding that delay was “just inevitable” as “Heathrow is fundamentally in the wrong place”.
Simon Clydesdale, a campaigner for the environmental group, Greenpeace UK, said: “Neither Heathrow nor the Davies Commission have managed to convince anybody that they can build a new runway without breaking pollution and carbon limits, which would be illegal – no ifs, no buts.”
Heathrow Airport’s Chief Executive, John Holland-Kaye, said he is still confident that his airport will still be chosen and “has full confidence that expansion can be delivered within environmental limits” and the airport has issued a statement pledging to work with the Government to deliver the hub capacity “Britain Needs.”
Jock Lowe, Director of Heathrow Hub, the independent proposal to extend the northern runway at Heathrow commented: “Given the importance of this major national infrastructure decision, a short delay to do additional work on the noise and air quality impacts of airport expansion seems sensible to us. The Government is right that everything possible must be done to mitigate the effect on local people and the environment.
“Our independent proposal – which from its inception has been designed to be politically and socially acceptable – is still very much in the game, competing with the big corporate guns of Heathrow Airport Ltd and Gatwick.
“There can be no doubt that expansion at Heathrow is in the best economic interests of the entire country and our extended runway is cheaper, simpler and less disruptive than Heathrow Airport’s own third runway scheme. It also brings no new areas into the noise footprint.”
Many observers see the latest development as a major boost to Gatwick’s ambition to build a second runway. It’s CEO, Stewart Wingate, said:
“This is a defining moment in the expansion debate. There is now a clear choice facing Britain: growth with Gatwick or inertia at Heathrow with an illegal scheme that has failed time and time again.
“We have always maintained that this decision is about balancing the economy and the environment. Expansion at Gatwick would give the country the economic benefit it needs at a dramatically lower environmental cost.
“We are glad that the Government recognises that more work on environmental impact needs to be done. Air quality, for example, is a public health priority and obviously the legal safeguards around it cannot be wished away.
“Even Heathrow’s most vocal supporters must now realise a third runway at Heathrow will never take off as the environmental hurdles are just too high. If they want Britain to have the benefits of expansion and competition they should now look to Gatwick.
“Expansion has been in a holding pattern for decades. Momentum is now behind Gatwick as it becomes ever clearer that it is the obvious solution. We will continue to work closely with Government to take forward our plan which is legal, affordable, and can actually deliver for Britain.”