Some of the huge planning implications if the government opts for a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick

The next steps, after the Airports Commission recommendation of a Heathrow runway, are still unclear. But a useful article in Planning Resource explains such of what might happen. The government is expected to make a statement by the end of the year on the Commission’s recommendation. It will also need to announce the consenting route for a new runway. There are two options – a development consent order (DCO), made under the provisions of the Planning Act 2008, or a hybrid bill. Both routes have benefits and downsides.  If the DCO route is chosen, a national policy statement (NPS) on aviation will almost certainly need to be prepared. Work on a draft NPS may already be taking place. It is not thought that an NPS could be done quickly, and with likely legal challenges, could take several years.  Alternatively there could be a “hybrid bill” on which all MPs could vote, and as any runway would be hugely controversial and divisive, this might be “more robust in terms of legal challenges.”  As well as the runway planning, local authorities would have a great deal of work to do, and would need to work co-operatively to provide sufficient housing and infrastructure. Some would need to review their local plans, and some plans may need to be updated. This all amounts to a huge volume of work.  And expense.



The planning implications of opting for a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick

11 September 2015 (Planning Resource)

by Mark Wilding 

With the government promising a pre-Christmas verdict on where airport expansion in the South East should take place, Mark Wilding asks what comes next in planning terms.

Speed read

  • The Prime Minister has pledged a decision on the Airports Commission’s recommendations for capacity expansion by the end of the year.
  • A development consent order or a hybrid bill will be used to give consent, experts say.
  • Councils are assessing demand for housing and infrastructure, and other impacts.
  • The final decision is likely to be challenged by the rejected operator, experts warn.


When Sir Howard Davies’s Airports Commission published its report in July, it marked the end of a process that had lasted for three years and cost £20 million. But the commission’s work nevertheless amounts to a preamble – now the real effort begins.

The report’s recommendation – that a new north-west runway be built at Heathrow Airport – is now being considered by the government, with Prime Minister David Cameron having committed to making a decision before the end of the year.

He has established a ten-strong aviation sub-committee to make recommendations, although its membership is notable for the absence of any opponents to Heathrow expansion.

But while the commission opted for a third runway at Heathrow, it did not rule out Gatwick entirely, meaning that the government could still endorse this option.

Alternatively, it could select neither of them, taking a path described as the “let the market decide” option by Angus Walker, partner at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell. This would leave the operators of either airport free to begin planning proceedings.

Whatever decision the government makes, it will kick-start a planning process likely to take several years and involve numerous stakeholders. The government itself, local authorities and airport operators will all need to begin work on various planning tasks.

The government is also expected to announce the consenting route for a new runway. There are two options – a development consent order (DCO), made under the provisions of the Planning Act 2008, or a hybrid bill. Most stakeholders seem to favour the DCO route, but both approaches have benefits and downsides.

A number of other tasks recommended by the commission will have to be dealt with as well, outside the planning system. “You can’t take the planning and consenting of a third runway in isolation from everything else that needs to happen,” says Robbie Owen, head of infrastructure planning and government affairs at law firm Pinsent Masons. “There are other issues, such as setting up a national noise authority, which if accepted by the government would need to be dealt with outside of the DCO regime.”

Owen adds that “a lot of the environmental aspects of the scheme will be dealt with through the planning and consenting process. But quite a lot won’t be, because they are broader than this particular scheme.”

Whether the DCO or hybrid bill route is chosen, business leaders keen to ensure swift progress have called for a parliamentary vote on Heathrow expansion to take place before next summer. Gavin Hayes, director of the Let Britain Fly campaign for business lobby group London First, says: “The next key milestone is some sort of parliamentary vote on the issue. For any big infrastructure project of this size and scale there has to be cross-party political support.”

If the DCO route is chosen, a national policy statement (NPS) on aviation will almost certainly need to be prepared. Work on a draft NPS may already be taking place. If not, it will have to get under way soon – if an NPS is to be prepared, it will need to be designated before a DCO application can be submitted. But it could be a slow process. Walker [from Bircham Dyson Bell] says he expected the commission to have done more groundwork. “It’s gathered a lot of evidence for the purpose of recommending a runway, but not the sort of data that would go into an NPS,” he says. “The government has got more work to do.”

The consultation required and the likelihood of legal challenge also suggest the process could be lengthy. Duncan Field, head of planning at legal practice Norton Rose Fulbright, says: “They will be lucky to get the NPS in place before 18 months.” He points to the national networks NPS, which took more than a year to be designated despite its relatively uncontroversial nature. By contrast, he adds, an aviation NPS could take much longer, given that it is controversial and there will be opportunity to challenge it.


Local authorities consider their options

Varying levels of support exist among local authorities near Heathrow and Gatwick. One or more may choose to launch a judicial review, to challenge either the government’s decision or any NPS. It’s not yet clear if they will do so, but some are clearly reluctant to accept the commission’s recommendations.

A spokeswoman for the London Borough of Hillingdon, close to Heathrow, says: “We do not want a third runway, we do not want expansion, we do not think that expansion is suitable there. From a policy point of view, we’re still fighting that corner.”

Meanwhile, other local authorities have supported expansion. Slough Borough Council has already agreed a partnership with Heathrow that sets out various mitigation measures on issues including noise and air quality.

Whether councils are supportive or not, expansion at Heathrow or Gatwick will require more than just an extra runway. Housing and other infrastructure represent one of the big challenges for local authorities. The exact number of homes required is up for debate – the commission has estimated that Heathrow expansion could require an additional 48,000 dwellings. The number is lower in Gatwick, estimated at around 9,300, but will still require coordination between the 14 nearby districts that are expected to have to accommodate growth.

Authorities may need to review their local plans. The Planning Officers Society has suggested that many plans in the relevant areas will be flexible enough to incorporate growth, but at least some are likely to need to be updated.

Peter Smith, cabinet member for planning at Crawley Borough Council, says: “Our local plan explicitly excludes any impact from a second runway at Gatwick. It’s not that we haven’t done anything. But we haven’t built that into the evidence base and local plan because the implications would be so significant.”

The way in which local authorities will work together is yet to be decided. The Airports Commission suggested that a sub-regional body could be established and both Heathrow and Gatwick have indicated their enthusiasm. “You would certainly want to bring bodies together on a sub-regional level because you need to look at the strategy as a whole,” says Gatwick planning manager Alison Addy. Ian Frost, planning manager at Heathrow, adds: “We envisage some sort of sub-regional planning forum. It wouldn’t make decisions, but it would try to present a collaborative view.”

A more informal approach may also be possible. Crawley has already been working with neighbouring councils. “If a second runway does come, we’re already 5,000 units short,” says Smith, “so we’d be following the National Planning Policy Framework’s duty to cooperate.”


Airport operators set to contest decision

Heathrow and Gatwick must now endure a tense wait to find out the government’s decision. Heathrow is the frontrunner after receiving the commission’s endorsement, but the verdict is by no means certain. Gatwick has been engaged in an active public relations campaign since the commission’s report was published, and says that from its perspective the battle is far from over.

A government endorsement of one location rather than another will bring with it the prospect of legal proceedings being initiated by the spurned operator. Walker suggests: “If the government recommends one airport, the other is likely to seek a judicial review of the decision.” The designation of an aviation NPS could also lead to a judicial review being sought.

Once an operator is selected, a number of planning tasks will then need to be undertaken. The chosen operator would hope to work closely alongside the government on the preparation of the NPS. Meanwhile, work on getting a DCO [development consent order] application together would begin in earnest.  Gatwick planning manager Alison Addy explains that this would take place in parallel to work on the NPS. “We wouldn’t sit and wait for two years for that to be adopted,” she says.

However, Walker cautions that this process will not necessarily be straightforward, with the NPS likely to be subject to change as it makes progress through Parliament.

Mitigating the impact of expansion at either airport will also be a significant consideration and the planning regime will play a vital role in this process. Conditions that must be fulfilled before an additional runway can be constructed and operated would be written into a hybrid bill, contained within an NPS or attached to any DCO permission.

In Heathrow’s case, the need to meet EU air quality requirements has been flagged up by the commission as a significant concern, while potential noise impacts represent a factor both there and at Gatwick. Tony Naccavone, leader of the hub capacity programme at Heathrow, says: “We fully expect there to be some form of binding target within the NPS.”

Public consultation will play a key part in either operator’s attempt to obtain planning permission without incurring any unnecessary opposition, but a considerable amount of work has been done on this aspect already.

At Heathrow, says Frost, “our programme sets out two statutory stages of consultation”. He adds that this “will be supported by lots of informal targeted consultation in between, before and after those stages”. Meanwhile, Gatwick undertook a six-week consultation on runway options last year and has been holding discussions with local authorities and other statutory bodies. “A lot of our work would be building on that,” explains Addy.


The two options for securing consent

Development Consent Order

A development consent order (DCO), made under the Planning Act 2008, is widely seen as the default option for a new runway at either Gatwick or Heathrow. The planning process for nationally significant infrastructure projects was designed specifically with schemes such as airport expansion in mind, and the route offers more certainty over timing than a hybrid bill. However, the need to prepare a national policy statement and the threat of legal challenges means that some delays are still likely.

Alison Addy, planning manager at Gatwick, says: “We’ve always said our preference is a DCO. It’s been proved to be very effective on other infrastructure projects.” Ian Frost, planning manager at Heathrow, says: “Our preference is programme-driven, we want to achieve a consent in this parliament. We think that a DCO can do this.” A DCO would put control of the application in the hands of the airport operators and let them lead on issues such as public consultation.


Hybrid Bill

A hybrid bill would involve all MPs in voting on the project. Duncan Field, head of planning at legal firm Norton Rose Fulbright, says: “You might argue it would de-risk things politically.” However, he adds: “There may be reticence in government, because it would be seen to be promoting the project itself.”

But the controversial nature of airport expansion may also be an argument in favour of a hybrid bill. Robbie Owen, head of infrastructure planning and government affairs at law firm Pinsent Masons, says there are pros and cons to both routes, but a hybrid bill “is more robust in terms of legal challenges”, and “more flexible in terms of being able to deal with changes to the scheme during the process.”