Watchdog casts doubt on Heathrow third runway

27.1.2009   (Financial Times)

By Jim Pickard and Fiona Harvey

The head of Britain’s environmental watchdog has branded the third runway at
Heathrow airport a “mistake”, saying it is unlikely to be built because of the
huge political uncertainty surrounding the project.

Lord Smith of Finsbury, chairman of the Environment Agency, said there was “a very big chance” that the project would stall given the threat
of legal action from campaigners and resistance from the Tories and Liberal Democrats.

“I think they are making a mistake for a number of reasons,” he said.     “It [the
opposition] will evidently make it much more difficult for BAA [the airports operator]
to make the decision to proceed with extensive planning and design work,” he said.

Geoff Hoon, transport secretary, gave the go-ahead for the third runway earlier
this month against the wishes of Labour backbenchers, environmentalists and both
opposition parties.

An internal cabinet wrangle forced several last-minute concessions, including
the promise that the Environment Agency and Civil Aviation Authority could block
the opening of the runway if it was likely to breach noise and air pollution guidelines.

Lord Smith, a former Labour cabinet minister, told the Financial Times that the agency would be “rigorous” in monitoring these standards, some of which were
already in potential breach.

“We already know that the levels of nitrogen oxide, for example, in some locations
around Heathrow, on present numbers of flights, break the limits which will shortly
become statutory limits,” he said.

The £8bn development is likely to add 350 flights a day at Heathrow, increasing
annual passenger numbers from 66m to about 82m.

The government has predicted that aircraft will become more efficient and green
by the time the runway is built – in about 10 years’ time – and will therefore
remain within European environmental standards.

Lord Smith said he was sceptical.     “I think the likelihood is that engines will
get cleaner; whether they will get cleaner as rapidly as the government projects
I have my doubts.”

As a result there was a high likelihood that the Environment Agency might have
to curb flights at the airport.

“However more efficient you make airlines, adding another 125,000 flights a year
and expanding when limits have already been breached seems to me to defy logic,”
Lord Smith said.

The EA chairman criticised ministers for making the Heathrow announcement the
only firm promise in a wider package, which included other greener transport measures.

Proposals for new high-speed rail links from London to the north were not concrete,
he suggested.