The publication of the transport select committee report into the Airports National Policy Statement has been interpreted by the government and Heathrow as a green light for expansion to proceed. Whilst the TSC recognised the strategic case for a third runway, the real story is the significant shift in position from a select committee that has long been supportive of a expansion to one that is highly critical of the lack of detail in the plans.
The robust list of recommendations in the TSC report highlights areas where significant work is still required before the government bring the final NPS to parliament for a vote. The TSC report also includes several additional conditions of approval to be included in the final version of the NPS on air quality, surface access, connectivity, costs and charges, noise, community impacts, resource and waste management.
Government will state that the NPS is about establishing the principles of design and that much of the detail will come in Heathrow’s planning application during the DCO process. However, the NPS is the document against which the planning application will be judged, and if it lacks sufficient detail on these key issues then it will not be strong enough to hold the airport to account. There is little evidence to suggest that parliament can have confidence in simply trusting Heathrow to ensure the appropriate detail is included in the planning application.
Heathrow and the government have had years to develop the detail of these proposals – it has been three years alone since the Airports Commission concluded – yet there still remains no robust mechanisms for addressing the negative impacts of the proposed expansion. In particular, the costs of the proposal to passengers, airlines and the taxpayer remain unclear.
Consequently, the TSC report is clear that parliament should approve the final NPS only if the conditions it recommends are included. The volume of work required to provide these detail and evidence is substantial and it is difficult to see how the government can incorporate all the recommendations fully and keep to its self-imposed timetable of a vote by the summer recess.
The decision to support expansion at Heathrow was based on the reports produced by the Airports Commission. However, since their publication in 2015 further analysis (including work by the DfT) has significantly undermined the conclusions drawn, particularly in relation the purported economic benefits of the scheme.
As highlighted in a letter signed by parliamentarians and local authority leaders, the fact that expansion at Heathrow will have a negative impact on the opportunity for growth at nearly all regional airports around the UK should be a significant cause for concern for MPs outside of London.
The TSC report also raises concerns that many regional routes into Heathrow will require government subsidy in order to be commercially viable, yet government has given no commitments as to the precise level of funds it is prepared to provide. The detail is again missing from the NPS.
Increasing the number of flights at Heathrow by around 50 per cent will inevitably increase traffic and worsen congestion on local transport networks, particularly as the Crossrail and the Piccadilly line upgrade were designed to support population growth in London, not a third runway at Heathrow. The TSC’s recommendation that the NPS include information about what surface access improvements are required to support a third runway is extremely welcome.
Government has now admitted that they would have to contribute an unspecified amount towards these schemes, yet as the TSC report makes clear the lack of detail about the size of this contribution is a significant cause for concern.
The report also recommends that significant work is undertaken to understand the impacts of construction on local transport networks. The fact that this has not already been undertaken is simply staggering – MPs need to know this information before they vote on the NPS.
Far from being a green light for expansion, the TSC report is damning in its critique of the NPS and highlights the strength of the case against expansion at Heathrow. Indeed, a number of recommendations in the TSC report are aimed at reducing the prospect of successful legal challenge against the government.
The TSC report demonstrates that a third runway at Heathrow is the most expensive and complex scheme, carries the highest financial and planning risks, has the most destructive environmental impact and delivers no economic benefit to the country. It seems counterproductive that government continues to support a scheme that simply will not be delivered.
I commend the work of the TSC for their scrutiny of this issue and urge my parliamentary colleagues to read the report. Those who do will understand why they should vote against the NPS when it is brought to parliament.
Andy Slaughter is MP for Hammersmith.