Go-ahead for development will intensify debate on air quality and noise pollution

12.1.2009   (Guardian)

by Dan Milmo, transport correspondent

The widely expected approval of a third runway at Heathrow this week will not
end the heated debate over the environmental consequences of expanding Britain’s
biggest airport.

A government white paper recommended the construction of two new runways in south-east
England, at Heathrow and Stansted, in 2003. It said expansion could go ahead on
the condition that environmental guidelines were met.

The Heathrow consultation, launched in 2007 and whose verdict is now imminent,
is about whether the airport can grow without breaching those standards.

According to government policy, a new runway and an increase in flights on the existing runways must meet three
criteria:   European air quality guidelines, noise pollution limits and better
public transport links to the airport.

In the consultation, the Department for Transport said all three standards could
be met, but it has spent nearly a year sifting through the responses, many of
them objecting to its conclusions because they were drawn up with the assistance
of Heathrow’s owner, BAA.

The EU, and a number of ministers, are concerned that the increase in arrivals
and departures on the existing runways will breach safety guidelines for nitrogen
dioxide – a noxious compound produced by aircraft engines that can cause respiratory
diseases.   The flight changes will be implemented by introducing a scheduling
change known as “mixed mode”, whereby both runways are used for arrivals and departures
constantly.   Under existing rules to give residents some respite from noise, one
runway must be used for take-offs only and the other for arrivals.   Stavros Dimas,
the European commissioner for the environment, has warned that introducing mixed
mode will exceed nitrogen dioxide limits “significantly”.

The noise restrictions state that the size of the area around Heathrow exposed
to a noise of up to 57 decibels must not be larger than 127 sq km. The government
believes this is possible, but it has drawn criticism for admitting that the third runway would have to operate far below capacity for the first 10 years
of its existence because it would breach those noise limits otherwise.

It is also understood that the government will soothe some of its ministerial,
backbench and public critics by announcing a package of public transport measures
alongside the decision, including a north-south high-speed rail link connecting
to Heathrow.

Alongside its expected approval for the runway, the government will also give
its verdict on three Heathrow expansion options, all of which include the third runway.

The most likely, and controversial, is to introduce a limited version of mixed mode
as early as next year, followed by full mixed mode in 2015 and the opening of
a third runway by 2020

The second option is the limited version of mixed mode, which does not require
an increase in flights, with a third runway. The last is to leave the airport
unchanged until the third runway opens in 2020.

According to the DfT, mixed mode and a third runway would incur financial costs
of £13.5bn but would generate economic benefits of £18.9bn – figures that are
hotly disputed by some economists and green groups.   The number of annual flights
would rise from 480,000 to 702,000, the equivalent of 600 extra flights a day
crossing London.

A government yes to a third runway does not bestow immediate planning approval
upon BAA. However, any planning inquiry must consider the proposal in the light of government approval
for the project
and assurances from ministers that it will pass noise and air pollution restrictions.

Nonetheless, the timing of the planning application and the next general election
could ensure that the expansion does not happen.

The Conservatives are determined to derail BAA’s planning application, expected
in 2011, by drafting a new aviation policy if they win the next general election,
which must take place by June 2010 at the latest.

The Heathrow planning application will be heard by the newly created infrastructure
planning commission, which will fast-track inquiries for big transport projects
and will give a high priority to government policy in drafting its decisions.

see also
Financial Times
Cabinet set to back Heathrow expansion


By Jim Pickard, Political Correspondent

BAA, owner of Heathrow, is expected to receive government backing next week to
build a third runway at the London airport.
Government sources have told the FT that the announcement will be made in the
middle of next week if it is agreed by the cabinet on Tuesday
Although a handful of ministers – including Hilary Benn, environment secretary,
and Ed Miliband, energy secretary – have serious reservations, the project is
expected to get the go-ahead.
Gordon Brown is keen to push ahead with the scheme as part of his drive to create
jobs by approving new investment in infrastructure projects.
The prime minister is likely to promise a rail link from Heathrow to the wider
train network in an attempt to reduce the environmental damage caused by the project.
But the expansion, if approved, is likely to provoke a backlash by scores of
backbenchers, many of whom believe the project could cost votes in London at
the next general election.
It will also be fought bitterly by environmentalists, who are likely to take
their challenges to the courts in the coming months.
Geoff Hoon, transport secretary, is understood to have met Mr Brown this week
to discuss the project. Mr Hoon has also met some sceptical Labour MPs to try
to win them over.
One person close to 10 Downing Street cautioned, however, that no final decision
had yet been made and the announcement could still be delayed until later in the
Mr Hoon had been expected to confirm the project in December but postponed the
decision until the end of January, saying he needed more time to reach "the right
conclusion". He only became transport secretary after Ruth Kelly resigned in early
However, Mr Hoon has said in the Commons that there is a very strong economic
argument for a larger Heathrow, given that the airport has almost reached full
A consultation over the proposals has received more than 70,000 submissions from
members of the public and other interested parties.
Justine Greening, Tory MP for Putney and an opponent of the plans, said on Friday
that ministers should listen to the thousands of people who had opposed the extension.
"A huge number of people have said that they don’t want Heathrow expanded," she
Heathrow is the third busiest air hub in the world, last year handling 67m passengers.
A third runway would increase its flights by almost a half, from 480,000 to 700,000
a year.
Expansion is bitterly opposed by thousands of west London residents, who resent
the congestion, noise and disturbance caused by the sprawling airport.