A third runway at Heathrow has been unanimously backed by the Airports commission despite its finding that extending the airport in west London would cause more damage to the environment than expanding Gatwick.
In its final report published today, the independent commission set up to consider airport expansion in the south east said that it unanimously supports Heathrow airport’s proposal for a new full-length runway to the northwest of the existing northern runway at Heathrow.
It also considered an independent proposal by Heathrow Hub Ltd to extend the existing northern runway to the west, and a plan by Gatwick to build a second runway at the airport in West Sussex.
After examining the three proposals, the commission concluded that new runway at Heathrow would result in the greatest strategic and economic benefits, claiming it would provide access to around 40 new destinations and create more than 70,000 new jobs by 2050.
The commission, which was chaired by Sir Howard Davies, has not ruled out either of the other two options. However, it said the option to extend one of the existing runways at Heathrow would generate the same noise and air quality impacts as building a new runway but provide a smaller increase in capacity. Expansion at Gatwick, meanwhile, would mainly increase short-haul European routes and would not have such strong economic benefits.
On noise, the commission found that expanding Gatwick would affect around 22,000 people by 2030, rising to almost 25,000 by 2050, while both Heathrow proposals would affect more than 550,000 people in 2030, rising to between 570-640,000 by 2050.
Despite the greater environmental impact of the Heathrow options, the commission said a third runway at the airport would offer opportunity for respite from noise by enabling runway alternation through the day. The commission recommends introducing a noise levy to fund an expanded programme of mitigation, including noise insulation for homes, schools and other community facilities. Night flights should be banned between 11.30pm and 6am, and legally binding limits should be put in place on noise from the airport, it said.
The commission considered damage to air quality from aircraft emissions and transport to and from the airports. It notes that limits on air quality are enshrined in domestic and European legislation, and said delivering any of the three options would be dependent on complying with this.
A second runway at Gatwick would not cause any breaches of mandatory air quality limits by 2030, it predicted, while both Heathrow options would lead to nitrogen oxide limits being breached and would therefore require further mitigation measures.
However, the report highlights the Supreme court ruling that the government must produce an action plan on air quality by the end of the year, and assumes that this will be forthcoming. “It is reasonable to expect that the proposals in that plan would reduce emissions from road vehicles and so further reduce the unmitigated levels set out,” the report states.
In addition, the commission suggested that new landing slots at Heathrow should only be released when air quality at sites around the airport comply with the air quality Directive.
Given that there are a range of other measures that an expanded Heathrow could take to mitigate damage to air quality, the commission concluded that this is a “manageable part of a wider problem that the government is now obligated to address,” and placed limited weight on suggestions that air quality will be a significant barrier to expanding Heathrow.
The commission assessed the impact of all options on carbon emissions from flights, ground movements and airport operations, and access to the airport under scenarios where carbon is capped domestically or is traded.
If carbon is traded internationally, the commission found that emissions from the Heathrow schemes are far higher than those from a second runway at Gatwick, as the west London hub operates a larger proportion of long-haul flights. However, the emissions from all options would be equal if carbon emissions are capped domestically in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s assumption of 37.5MTC02 in 2050, the report states.
Environmental campaign groups reacted with dismay to the commission’s conclusions. Several had proposed constraining demand for flying by replacing air passenger duty with a tax on frequent flying.
WWF chief executive David Nussbaum said that the government must set out how it will make up for the additional carbon emissions from airport expansion, otherwise it will not be able to show leadership at international climate negotiations, or meet its carbon budget.
Conservative party opponents to expansion at Heathrow include London mayor Boris Johnson, international development secretary and Putney MP Justine Greening, and Richmond Park MP and future mayoral candidate Zach Goldsmith. The three MPs have launched a campaign to highlight the areas of the capital that will be impacted by air pollution for the first time.
Goldsmith said: “Sir Howard Davies seems to have begun with a conclusion a few years ago, and spent £20 million of public money justifying it.”
Shadow transport secretary Michael Dugher said the Labour party would support Heathrow expansion as long as it met tests on the UK’s climate change obligations, as well as on noise and air quality.
The CBI urged the government to make a speedy decision. Its director general, John Cridland, said the government should “get diggers in the ground at Heathrow swiftly by 2020.”
The government is due to respond to the report by autumn, after which any proposal would need to obtain permission, either through the nationally significant infrastructure project process or via a hybrid bill in parliament.