Credit: Warren Rohner

Will Heathrow actually get a third runway?

UPDATE: Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye's promise to restrict night flights could take away ammunition from nimby and Gatwick-supporter alike.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 11 May 2016

Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye cleverly waited until after the London mayoral election to play his trump card in the high-stakes contest for a new runway: a surprise promise to meet the Davies Commission's recommendations on night flights, noise and air pollution. Sort of. Davies called for no night flights between 11.30pm and 6am, which Holland-Kaye rejected in November 2015. Instead, he's proposing no flights from 11pm to 5.30am. What's half an hour between friends, eh?

In this article from November 2015, MT looks at how a refusal to ban night flights was giving much-needed ammunition to the no-runway brigade. Will Holland-Kaye's turnaround leave them outgunned? 

When the Airports Commission recommended Heathrow as the best site for Britain’s much needed new runway in July, the government committed to making a decision by the end of the year. If you hadn’t noticed all the tinsel encroaching into shop windows like parasitic ivy, that self-imposed deadline is fast approaching.

Six months is a long time in politics, and opponents of Heathrow’s expansion have been mounting a sustained rearguard action. Mostly, they’ve attempted to undermine the Commission’s report, penned by MT columnist and now RBS chairman Sir Howard Davies. Now they’ve received a different kind of ammunition - from Heathrow itself.

Boss John Holland-Kaye has refused to commit to ending night flights (between 11.30pm and 6am), which Davies recommended as a condition for the third runway. Speaking to the Environmental Audit Committee, Holland-Kaye acknowledged the needs of local residents, but said there was a ‘big cost’ to the British economy from stopping night flights, owing to the impact that would have on long haul routes to Asia.

‘It’s not easy to resolve that. We are working on it,’ he said. ‘I’m confident that we will be able to find a way through that and that there’s a real opportunity to significantly reduce night flying at Heathrow with expansion.’

Not exactly a firm enough commitment for London Mayor and Heathrow opponent Boris Johnson. He said the Airports Commission recommendation was ‘crucially tied’ to conditions such as night flights. ‘It also makes it politically impossible for the government now to endorse the Airport Commission’s recommendation.’

And there’s the nub. Opponents of the Heathrow runway aren’t trying to convince the public or the government that another or no airport is better. They just want to give the government an out clause from making a very unpopular political decision.

Gatwick boss Stewart Wingate said yesterday, for instance, that Heathrow’s bid (unlike Gatwick’s, of course) might be illegal under EU air quality rules, even rather creatively tying it to the VW scandal.

‘The Heathrow area currently breaches EU air quality limits. A third runway would mean millions more car journeys. The VW scandal broke just days after the start of the government’s air quality consultation and calls into question current projections... it makes it extremely hard to see how there could currently be a legal basis for approving Heathrow expansion,’ Wingate said.

This may all seem like sore losers looking for victory on a technicality ex post facto, but it might actually work. This is after all a decision that’s been delayed time and again, because doing anything will upset voters, and indeed MPs, more than doing nothing. But ultimately if politicians kick the can down the road again, it will be the British economy that will suffer under the weight of its own creaking infrastructure. In twenty years’ time few would thank David Cameron for doing nothing now.

'You would have thought I had come with a proposal to demolish the Tower of London at huge public expense' - read what Sir Howard Davies thinks about the reaction to the Airports Commission's recommendation.

'It can only be Gatwick' - read the MT Interview with Gatwick boss Stewart Wingate.


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