Heathrow third runway plan hits new snag

28.3.2009   (Guardian)

by Dan Milmo

The proposed third runway at Heathrow has been dealt a serious blow after a government
document warned that airport group BAA cannot lodge a planning application for
the project before the next general election.

The Conservatives, well ahead of Labour in the polls, have pledged to block a new runway at the UK’s busiest international
airport. The admission gives a Tory government ample time to draft a new aviation
policy that will block BAA’s plans.

According to a presentation by the Department for Transport, seen by the Guardian,
BAA is not expected to seek planning permission for a third runway until 2012.
The last possible date for a general election is 3 June 2010 and BAA’s best hope
for expanding Heathrow is to start the planning process by submitting an application
before then.

Executives at the airport group have conceded that it will be impossible to compile
the plans and data necessary for an application by that date. The DfT presentation
deals a further blow to BAA’s ambitions by conceding that the government document
that must underpin a planning request for major infrastructure development, a
national policy statement, will not be ready until 2011.

A national policy statement is a key guide for any planning decision by the Infrastructure
Planning Commission, the new body that will evaluate a Heathrow proposal. The
DfT has admitted that the policy statement must undergo public consultation and
scrutiny by MPs before it can be considered by the commission.

The presentation for civil servants drafted by the DfT’s head of airports strategy,
Jonathan Moor, adds that BAA will not start constructing a runway until 2013 at
the earliest, even if it wins planning approval.

In the document the projected date for construction work is also placed next
to an ominous picture of an eco-protest camp. However, the runway opponent who
gets the most exposure in the document is actress Emma Thompson. Geoff Hoon, the
transport secretary, accused Thompson of hypocrisy after it emerged that she uses
the airport to fly to Los Angeles. The presentation carries a picture of the actor
at the Golden Globes award ceremony in Los Angeles, with her comments that a third
runway would be “laughably hypocritical” highlighted in red next to the picture.

Anti-expansion campaigners said the DfT document confirmed the odds of Heathrow
getting a third runway were diminishing. “There is no way that BAA can get planning
permission before the next general election. The chances that a third runway will
never be built are increasing all the time,” said John Stewart, chair of the Hacan
ClearSkies campaign group.

Plans to expand Stansted are also in doubt after the Competition Commission questioned
whether BAA ought to push ahead with plans for a second runway at the Essex airport.
The government has postponed a public inquiry into a second runway at Stansted
while it considers the implications of a commission investigation into BAA. The
commission recommended this month that BAA sell Gatwick, Stansted and one of its
Scottish airports. The BAA board is meeting next week to consider its response
to the commission and whether it should press ahead with expanding Stansted, where
a second runway is due to open in 2017.

A BAA spokesman said the airport operator had yet to confirm a schedule for submitting
a planning application for a third Heathrow runway. A DfT spokesman said: “Following
the decisions announced in January, it is now for BAA to develop and submit a
planning application, the timing of which is entirely for them to decide.”