By Gary Mason, Editor, Airport Focus
So Heathrow is to get its third runway after all some four years and one month after the inquiry set up to look at the issue started its ministrations. The prospect of a “hard” Brexit and nervousness about business confidence and trade isolation forced the government to make what was always going to be a deeply unpopular decision.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, President Elect Donald’s Trump’s announcement of a major commitment to rebuilding infrastructure included a specific mention of airports. This should be welcomed as a significant number of US airports are looking tired and old and in serious need of investment.
But back to Heathrow where we are still some way off the rumble of bulldozers. The scheme will now be taken forward in the form of a draft ‘National policy statement’ (NPS) for consultation.
Airport expansion will be delivered through what the government claims is a“faster planning process”, under the 2008 Planning Act and 2011 Localism Act. It will set out the airport scheme it wants, along with supporting evidence, in that NPS. But then the public and Members of Parliament will be consulted and there will also be a vote in the House of Commons. This will be followed by a planning application by the airport to the Planning Inspector who will take a view and advise government of his decision. Final sign off will be by the Secretary of State for Transport and the government will make meeting air quality legal requirements a condition of planning approval. So that is at least four more big fences over which this unfancied horse may fall.
Prior warnings about the expense of the scheme – trumpeted by the boss of Heathrow’s biggest customer, BA, no less – have been brought into sharp focus. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), as the independent industry regulator, is to work with Heathrow Airport Ltd and airlines operating at the airport, on the detailed design and costs to ensure the scheme remains affordable. “The government expects the industry to work together to drive down costs to benefit passengers. The aim should be to deliver a plan for expansion that keeps landing charges close to current levels,” it has warned.
The government also proposes that a six-and-a-half hour ban on scheduled night flights will be introduced for the first time at Heathrow and will make more stringent night noise restrictions a requirement of expansion. The timing of this ban will again be determined through consultation.
In effect, the talking is far from over. Indeed, the really serious bit of that talking process is yet to start. At least it is now unlikely that the former London Mayor Boris Johnson will chain himself to a bulldozer. As Foreign Secretary he has now got bigger fish to fry. But one MP has resigned over the Heathrow issue and others will follow. We are at the beginning not at the end.