UPDATED: A third runway for Heathrow

New Projects, The News, The Future of HeathrowSimon FellComment

Updated 3 07 15:

A blistering editorial from The Times sums up the frustration felt by many at this report. It is hard to believe, even though it has given itself months yet to deliberate, that the government will back Sir Howard's conclusions:

After three years and an outlay of £20 million, Sir Howard Davies and the Airports Commission have produced their final recommendations for increasing airport capacity in the southeast. Their vote for a third runway at Heathrow is presented as conclusive. It is anything but. 

Sir Howard is a diligent public servant. His report is thorough as far as it goes. Unfortunately it does not go far enough. It is unimaginative and unrealistic. It comes down in favour of a blueprint that for sound political and environmental reasons will prove impossible to realise. 

This was a chance to put aside the inhibition that constrains most political decision making. It was an opportunity to consider Britain’s infrastructure needs for the rest of a 21st century in which aviation will continue to shrink the planet and grow in route and passenger numbers. It is an opportunity that has been missed.

As many have predicted, it would seem that if the government is to make a decision on expansion - and they must if they do not wish to be derelict in their duty - then Gatwick will eventually get the nod. The political reality - that a significant number of Cabinet ministers, the Mayor (and likely Conservative candidate for Mayor) are all firmly against Heathrow expansion - make any other decision tricky to say the least. 

The transport Secretary has given until autumn for the government to report back on its plans. No matter what they decide, let's hope that it is unambiguous. It is in London's best interest that a runway actually gets built.

Breaking news from the BBC:

The Airports Commission has backed a third Heathrow runway, saying it will add £147bn in economic growth and 70,000 jobs by 2050.

It would also connect Britain to over 40 new destinations around the world.

Sir Howard Davies's report said that the new runway should come with severe restrictions to reduce the environmental and noise effects.

Night flights would be banned and the government would make a Parliamentary pledge not to build a fourth runway.

An aviation noise levy would fund insulation for homes and schools and a legal commitment would be made on air quality.

Sir Howard said that a second runway at Gatwick was a "credible" option but was less able to provide connections to long-haul destinations and would create lower levels of economic growth.

A third option for extending the present runways at Heathrow was rejected.

Sir Howard said that the recommendation for a new runway to the north of the present airport was "clear and unanimous".

"The best answer is to expand Heathrow's capacity through a new north-west runway," Sir Howard 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 and the broader economy.

"Adding capacity at Heathrow also provides an opportunity to change the airport's relationship with its local communities.

"To make expansion possible the Commission recommends a comprehensive package of measures including a ban on night flights and a new noise levy to fund a far stronger and more generous set of compensation and mitigation schemes."

The Commission admits that expanding Heathrow would mean many more people affected by noise compared to expanding Gatwick.

But it claims that quieter aircraft and home insulation would mean that overall noise levels would fall for people living near the airport by 2030.

Nearly 800 homes would have to be demolished to build the new runway which would cost £17.6bn to deliver.

Road and rail links around the airport would also have to be substantially changed, which could cost up to £5bn. 

A second runway at Gatwick would cost just over £7bn.

The Commission believes that both schemes would be funded by private finance.

Environmental groups, resident organisations and a number of prominent politicians including the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, have said they will campaign vigorously against any expansion of Heathrow.

In 2009, David Cameron pledged that there would be no new runway at Heathrow.

The government has said that it will give its official response to the Commission in the autumn and it is estimated that, if given the go-ahead, any new runway would take more than a decade to build.

Now the fun begins. The government committed only to respond to Sr Howard's findings - not to enact them in full.

Lobby correspondents reported that Sir Howard's paper was discussed at Cabinet yesterday. A number of prominent Cabinet ministers are dead set against Heathrow expansion. So is the Mayor of London (and Heathrow's MP). And so are a number of the candidates vying to replace him.

There's no denying that this report causes a headache for this government, but it is entirely one of their own making. Sir Howard's Commission was put together to provide a long-term solution  outside of the glare of short-term politics. 

The fact remains that London needs more air capacity. Whether or not Heathrow is the best option remains open for debate. But given that Sir Howard's recommendation explicitly rules out a fourth runway at Heathrow, both now and in the future, one can't help but feel that this is a not a long-term solution at all, but rather a medium-term fix.

The government will respond to the report in the Autumn. In the meantime, you can read the full report here.