Government response to EAC on Heathrow air pollution are vague and entirely unsatisfactory

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) criticised the UK Government for its failure to deal adequately with air pollution from a 3rd Heathrow runway. Before its dissolution, for the general election on 8th June 2017, the EAC published the response by the government (dated 21st April) to questions put to it by the committee in February. The responses on air pollution are not satisfactory. Asked by the EAC to  carry out work to reduce the significant health impacts identified, the government just says it is updating “its evidence base on airport capacity as appropriate to ensure that any final NPS is based on the most up to date information” … and that “The Government is determined to meet its air quality obligations and to do so in the shortest time possible.” …”The draft NPS stipulates that final development consent will only be granted if the Secretary of State is satisfied that, with mitigation, the scheme would be compliant with legal air quality requirements.”  ie. totally vague, saying almost nothing specific.  The EAC said Government must publish a comprehensive assessment of the infrastructure requirements of a 3rd runway and consult on it before publishing a final NPS.  The Government just said “necessary changes to the transport system will rightly be considered as part of the statutory planning process.” And so on. 



Government responds to EAC report



Before its dissolution on 3rd May, the EAC released a number of papers, including the Government’s response to its follow-up report on the Airports Commission recommendations. There were no great surprises in the Government’s response, and the lack of any strategy on aviation’s climate change impact was openly acknowledged. In a comment following the release of the Government’s response, Mary Creagh, chair of the EAC, stated that ministers “have no national plan for air pollution, and their carbon calculations are a fantasy.”

Seventh Special Report

The Environmental Audit Committee published its Seventh Report of Session 2016–17, The Airports Commission Report Follow-up: Carbon Emissions, Air Quality and Noise, [HC 840] on 23 February 2017. The Government’s response was received on 21 April 2017 and is appended to this report.

Appendix: Government response


The Government welcomes the work that the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has done on the subject of airport capacity since the Airports Commission (AC) published its final report in July 2015.

In informing the House of Commons of the Government’s preference for the Heathrow Northwest Runway scheme the Secretary of State for Transport was very clear that “we must tackle air quality and noise, and meet our obligations on carbon both during and after construction”.

The draft Airports National Policy Statement (NPS), laid before Parliament and published for public consultation on 2 February 2017, sets out the requirements that an applicant for a Northwest Runway scheme at Heathrow Airport and associated infrastructure would need to meet in order to gain development consent. These include measures to limit the impacts of noise, air quality and carbon emissions.

The Transport Committee has been appointed by the Liaison Committee to scrutinise the draft NPS, and will publish its report by summer recess 2017. Once the public consultation has closed, the Government will consider all the responses received, along with the report from the Transport Committee. Only then would the Secretary of State lay a final NPS before Parliament, which may be voted on by the House of Commons, after which it could be designated by the Secretary of State.


Below is the section on Air Quality:

Air Quality

1.   [The EAC had said to government:]  The Government must publish such an assessment [of air quality impacts using the revised air quality plan] alongside the final National Policy Statement, it must work towards a scenario in which all road links affected by expansion have predicted concentrations below the limit value. Whilst the health impact assessment is a step in the right direction, the Government must carry out work to reduce the significant health impacts identified, before construction of the third runway begins. (Paragraph 32)

Response: (by government)  The Government continues to update its evidence base on airport capacity as appropriate to ensure that any final NPS is based on the most up to date information.

The Government is determined to meet its air quality obligations and to do so in the shortest time possible. We will publish the final UK Air Quality Plan by 31 July. The draft NPS stipulates that final development consent will only be granted if the Secretary of State is satisfied that, with mitigation, the scheme would be compliant with legal air quality requirements.

As far as health impacts are concerned, the draft NPS makes very clear that “in order to be compliant with the Airports NPS, a further project level Health Impact Assessment is required. The application should include and propose health mitigation, which seeks to maximise the health benefits of the scheme and mitigate any negative health impacts”.1

2.  [EAC asked]   We encourage the committee scrutinising the NPS to consider this report and its recommendations, and urge the Government to clarify its position [on post-Brexit air quality limits] in its response to this report. (Paragraph 33)

Response:  (by government)  The Government is aware of the desire for certainty around what exiting the EU means for our environmental policy and legislative framework. That is why the Prime Minister announced last year our plans for a Great Repeal Bill. The Bill will convert EU law into UK law as it stands at the moment before we leave the EU. On 30 March 2017 the Great Repeal Bill White Paper 2 was published setting out the detail of our approach to the Bill and how the domestic legal system will work once we have left the EU.

The UK has a long commitment to improving the environment even before it joined the EU; for example the Clean Air Act was introduced in 1956. Our strong commitment to improving air quality will continue after the UK leaves the EU.

3.  [EAC asked]   The Government should work with Defra on an air quality alert system for people who are especially vulnerable to the effects of short-term exposure to pollutants. (Paragraph 34)

Response:(by government)   Through the Government-funded website UK-Air3, Defra already makes available a five-day forecast from the Met Office on predicted air pollution levels. This allows members of the public, particularly those who are most likely to be affected by such pollution, to take action. This information is also available on the Met Office website, alongside the weather forecast.

UK-Air also provides the most up-to-date information on local air pollution levels using data from the national network of air pollution monitors. Importantly, the website provides Public Health England’s advice on practical actions and steps people can take to minimise the impact of these events.

Defra issues daily tweets from the UK-Air Twitter account, which provide information about current air pollution levels and accompanying health advice. These include details of affected regions and links to regionalised maps. These are routinely retweeted by Public Health England and are followed by journalists who use the information to inform their reporting, as well as health charities and campaign groups who regularly retweet information to vulnerable populations.

During episodes of high air pollution Defra alerts a network of health charities, providing full details of the nature of the episode, its geographical location and anticipated duration, along with links to further information including specific health advice relevant to the episode.

The Government will continue to ensure that members of the public have the information and advice they need to take appropriate action to minimise their exposure to high levels of pollution.

4.  [EAC asked]   The Government must publish such an assessment [a comprehensive assessment of the infrastructure requirements of an expanded Heathrow] and consult on it before publishing a final National Policy Statement. (Paragraph 44)

Response: (by government)  As part of the statutory planning process responsibility rests with the applicant to provide a detailed Transport Assessment as part of any development consent application and to set out its proposals to mitigate impacts on the surrounding transport network, whether through transport infrastructure or other transport measures.

In the draft NPS the Government has proposed the outcomes it wishes to see, including specific targets relating to public transport mode share and employee travel that the airport would be required to meet. It would be up to the applicant to demonstrate in detail how it would meet such outcomes. However, the work of the AC, and subsequent work, has illustrated a number of improvements to public transport which could support this. Some of these improvements, such as Crossrail, HS2 and improvements to the Great Western and Piccadilly Lines are happening regardless of airport expansion.

Other schemes, such as the planned Western Rail Link to Heathrow, are in development and could be in place before a new runway opens. This would provide a rail connection to the west of the airport. Other proposed schemes such as Southern Rail Access would provide direct access from the airport to the South West Trains network, with connections towards Waterloo and Clapham Junction, and potentially towards Woking and Basingstoke. Southern Rail Access is at an earlier stage of development and a range of options are being considered which would provide a range of benefits to both airport and non-airport users.

Details of any finalised proposals for the Northwest Runway scheme at Heathrow Airport and necessary changes to the transport system will rightly be considered as part of the statutory planning process.

5.  [EAC asked]   There needs to be clarity over how this pledge [that there will be “no more cars on the road” as a result of expansion] will be delivered and monitored, the consequences if it is not met and the implications of that for local authorities’ responsibilities to deliver air quality compliance. (Paragraph 45)

Response: (by government) The Government has set out its expectation in the draft NPS that “Heathrow Airport should continue to strive to meet its public pledge to have landside airport-related traffic no greater than today.” The Government has also proposed specific targets on public transport mode share and employee travel. Heathrow Airport will need to set out, and provide evidence, as part of any development consent application as to exactly how it would achieve these. It is the Government’s expectation that, subject to the outcome of the NPS and planning processes, the mode share targets at paragraph 5.16 [copied below] of the draft NPS would become binding upon the airport.

Lastly, we note that the EAC referred in its report to a Government target for 60% of all new cars to be Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles (ULEVs) by 2030. The EAC has since confirmed that this was an error as the Government currently has no such target. The Government is committed to almost all cars and vans being zero emission by 2050 and will publish an updated strategy on support for the transition to zero emission road transport by March 2018.

See full EAC report at


1 Draft NPS, paragraph 1.33



5.16 Any application for development consent and accompanying airport surface access strategy must include details of how the applicant will maximise the proportion of journeys made to the airport by public transport, cycling and walking to achieve a public transport mode share of at least 50% by 2030, and at least 55% by 2040 for passengers. The applicant should also include details of how it will achieve a 25% reduction from the current baseline of all staff car trips by 2030, and a reduction of 50% by 2040 from 2017 levels. 123  HAL will aim to report, on at least an annual basis, on progress towards meeting or exceeding these targets.  [But there is no mention of any enforcement if the target is not met. AW comment]


123  These mode share targets are derived from Heathrow Airport Ltd. Statement of Principles, part 5, paragraph 1.6