Heathrow runway decision delayed – and no one is happy about it

Dec 11, 2015

British Airways has threatened to pull out of hub, while critics on all sides slam government 'dithering'

BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

David Cameron's airport committee has delayed the decision on whether to build a third runway at Heathrow until at least next summer – in the process angering almost everyone.

In an announcement confirming reports earlier this week that the final ruling would be kicked into the long grass, the committee said only that it was clear there was a need for new airport capacity in south-east England, to be built by 2030. The Guardian notes that it declined to even name Heathrow as a frontrunner, resurrecting rival Gatwick's hopes of getting the nod.

Postponing the decision is a matter of political expediency. Cameron made a "no ifs, no buts" pledge not to develop Heathrow when in opposition in 2009 so, if it is to go ahead, the call for more environmental evidence might just give enough cover to U-turn without losing face. It will also mean the final verdict will come after the London mayoral election, in which his party is fielding a candidate in Zac Goldsmith who is doggedly opposed to the project.

But it is also widely being seen as a political fudge. Goldsmith's Labour rival Sadiq Khan said it was purely designed to avoid "embarrassing" his opponent. His party's shadow transport minister Lilian Greenwood said the process was "shambolic". The British Chamber of Commerce, which believes not expanding Heathrow on the current timetable could cost the economy £5bn, said the move was "gutless".

Within his own party, Cameron faced criticism for leaving the door open to Gatwick debate by MPs for constituencies that would be affected by its expansion. Crispin Blunt, the Tory chair of the Gatwick Coordination Group, said the delay was a "disgraceful vacillation by government". Elsewhere, advocates for Heathrow, such as the BackHeathrow campaign director Rob Gray, condemned Cameron's "dithering and delaying".

Environmental groups remain unhappy that the government is still committed to expanding airport capacity at all when it is about to commit to stringent new carbon pollution targets. Oliver Hayes, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said instead "it's time the government taxed those who are contributing most to the air pollution" to reduce demand and thus the need for more capacity.

And Willie Walsh, chief executive of the parent company of one of Heathrow's biggest airline customers, British Airways, continued to voice his vehement opposition to the plans as currently drafted. He thinks Heathrow is the best option for expansion, but wants a new plan that abandons what he sees as fripperies such as a new terminal and underground train system to get the cost down from £17bn. Walsh even threatened to check out of the airport altogether, The Times reports.

One person happy with the announcement was Boris Johnson, who says his own favoured plan to build a new airport in the Thames Estuary dubbed "Boris Island" is now back in the running.

"The wheels are falling off the Heathrow fuselage and I think that, now the government has hit the pause button, they will begin to understand with ever greater clarity that, due to the environmental impacts, the legal obstacles and the cost to the public purse, this bird will never fly," Johnson said.

Heathrow runway delay: politics trumps economics

09 December

A decision on whether Heathrow will get a third runway is to be delayed, after the economic case for expansion flew into a political storm.

The government has promised a "response" to the Airports Commission recommendation to build at the UK's biggest airport by the end of the year, but journalists have now been briefed that this will not be a final decision.

Instead, the government could endorse the commission's work to some extent while calling for new evidence on the environmental credentials of both Heathrow and rival Gatwick's bid.

At the eye of the storm for the Conservatives is Zac Goldsmith, a sometimes-rebellious backbench MP who is the party's candidate to succeed Boris Johnson as London mayor.

Recalling the "no ifs, no buts" pledge David Cameron made to approve Heathrow expansion when the Tories were still in opposition, Goldsmith said yesterday that reneging would be "an enormous betrayal" of voters in his Richmond constituency, according to the Financial Times.

Goldsmith has pledged to resign and trigger a by-election if Cameron backs the third runway. The BBC says Goldsmith now admits he "regrets" this pledge – and he has offered a way out.

The FT reports the mayoral candidate would not resign if the government employed a "legitimate delaying tactic" of not endorsing Heathrow's development while calling for the new environmental evidence.

He says the Volkswagen emissions scandal has "changed everything" and that both of the two main rival bidders should have to re-assert and prove their environmental cases.

Given that Goldsmith would resign anyway if he won the election in May, this could buy enough time to avoid a damaging bust-up. It is this, perhaps, that explains the expected decision to hold a final decision for up to six months until after the London vote is held.

But some reckon this political expediency flies in the face of the economic arguments for expansion.

The Confederation of British Industry published an estimate this morning that says a six-month delay, if it meant the new runway would not be ready for 2030, would cost the economy as much as £5.3bn, Sky News notes.

The Labour party and its mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, are seeking to exploit the issue for political gain. Khan told the BBC yesterday people in London would not forgive Cameron "if he postpones the decision simply to spare Mr Goldsmith's 'embarrassment' during the election campaign".

Heathrow runway delayed until after London Mayor election

8 December

The decision over whether to build a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick has been kicked into the long grass for "at least another six months", according to the BBC.

The government was due to respond last week to the recommendations of the Airport Commission but decided to wait until this week. Now senior sources close to the process are saying the deliberations will go on until next summer.

Insiders are briefing that there needs to be more "confidence-building" about the environmental impact of a new runway at Heathrow.

The government will "signal strong support for Heathrow expansion", The Times reports, but will insist on waiting for a review of air quality data.

A third runway at Britain's largest airport was unanimously supported by the commission, with its report arguing that most of the environmental and noise pollution could be offset with measures including reducing night flights.

The new delay will anger business leaders, who have called for the government to "get on" with expanding Britain's airport capacity.

Some observers are adamant politics has taken precedence, with David Cameron apparently concerned about reneging on his "no ifs, no buts" pledge of 2009 that there would not be a third Heathrow runway. Endorsement of the plan from a scientific study could help his cause.

More significant still could be the London mayoral election, where even the Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith is a vocal opponent of the plan.

"The timetable will postpone a final decision until beyond the London mayoral election in May," The Times notes, avoiding a bruising internal party battle.

Gatwick goes to war over Heathrow runway decision

20 August

Nobody believed the Airports Commission's decision to recommend a third runway at Heathrow would end the saga of airport expansion – and the UK's second largest hub, Gatwick, is going out of its way to ensure that it is not.

The West Sussex airport's management has issued a strongly worded dossier deriding the work of the commission, led by incoming Royal Bank of Scotland chairman Sir Howard Davies. They say the report, which took three years to produce, was based on weak data and offers little or no rationale for its final verdict.

According to the Daily Telegraph the 50-page rebuke, the second it has issued since the decision was made public in July, says the commissions findings "suffer from omissions or superficial analysis in some critical areas" and are based on "incorrect" traffic estimates.

Heathrow's new runway will cost some £17.6bn to build, plus a further £5bn in transport infrastructure upgrades, compared to costs of £7.1bn and £800m for Gatwick. But the commission found that opening up new long-haul destinations for business users by adding capacity to Heathrow could boost the economy by £150bn over 60 years and create 700,000 jobs. Gatwick says these economic forecasts were based on estimates by PricewaterhouseCoopers that are "unsound".

Stringer defended his report, the Telegraph reports, arguing that the Gatwick paper "appears to repeat many points" made to the commission, which were "carefully considered". He said that Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate's use of  "colourful language… does not turn weak points into strong ones, and does him and his company no credit".

Gatwick also points to "undisputed" figures showing expansion of its rival will affect an additional 320,000 with noise pollution, compared with only 18,000 more if it was granted a second runway. However, GetSurrey reports that the airport has been forced to withdraw advertisements quoting these figures as it failed to make "the basis of its comparisons clear".

Heathrow third runway fight is just getting started

3 August

Plans to build a third runway at Heathrow have attracted fresh criticism – and from a surprising source.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways owner International Airlines Group, whom The Guardian states was once a "prominent backer" of the proposal to expand the UK's largest airport, has launched a stinging attack on the £17.6bn cost of the new runway, saying it "cannot be justified on any basis".

Speaking in the wake of the company's half-year results being published late last week, Walsh said IAG's airlines, which account for more than half of the landing slots at Heathrow, did not ask for new infrastructure which is "not fit for purpose" and so would not pay another 50 per cent on top of airport fees of £800m to £900m a year to fund it. He said the issue of financing was "glossed over" and that a debate "hasn't really started yet".

A final decision will be made by a parliamentary commission chaired by David Cameron. It already has the backing of an independent review chaired by Howard Davies, which said the project could generate a £150bn boost to GDP over 60 years.

But there is strong political opposition, too. Conservative MP and Mayor of London Boris Johnson is a vocal dissenter, campaigning again in the Sunday Telegraph this week for the building of a new "four-runway hub" airport in the Thames Estuary. However, unlike fellow MP and mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith, Johnson has said he will not stand down as an MP if Heathrow is chosen.

Jeremy Corbyn, frontrunner in the Labour leadership campaign, has said he too is against the plans, The Independent reports. His rivals Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall have all come out in favour of the new runway, provided certain environmental safeguards are imposed.

Labour's position is significant as the Government may need opposition votes to win parliamentary approval. But with the SNP backing the plan, the chairman of the Tories' influential 1922 committee of backbenchers told the Telegraph that only around 50 MPs would be expected to vote against expansion.

Heathrow third runway edges closer as opponents left out

23 July

Heathrow could be a step closer to getting its controversial third runway after key political opponents including Home Secretary Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond were left out of the committee which will make the final decision.

The BBC reports the airports sub-committee will by chaired by prime minister David Cameron. Among other senior figures are Chancellor George Osborne, Business Secretary Sajid Javid, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, Environment Secretary Liz Truss and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd.

Critics of the Heathrow plans immediately pointed to the absence of the home and foreign secretaries, who represent constituencies under the proposed flight path. Other known dissenters were also left out, including International Development Secretary Justine Greening and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Greg Hands.

The government rejected any suggestion it had weighted the committee to those less likely to oppose the new runway and insisted it had merely chosen ministers with the strongest direct policy interest in the decision. Against this the BBC points to a decision to include Scotland Secretary David Mundell but not Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, another Heathrow opponent.

A third runway was given strong backing by an independent commission earlier this month but the final decision rests with the government. The prime minister is in a difficult position after he said in 2009 that he would oppose expansion at Heathrow, "no ifs and no buts".

Opposition within his own party is also strong. London Mayor Boris Johnson once threatened to lie in front of bulldozers and Tory MP Zac Goldsmith, who has said he will stand to be Johnson's successor, threatened to resign if the plans go ahead.

Goldsmith told the Daily Telegraph that if the decision to exclude the home and foreign secretaries reflects a lack of confidence that they will act in the national interests, then logically the prime minister should "fire them both immediately".

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I think to build a third runway is better option instead of new airport because new one will cost much more as old one.

Your article is a joke! Why are none of the arguments against a new airport included? There are plenty of them.

Let me explain in English the old airport is a hazard and if a plane crashed would kill many people. Noise and air pollution will raise a legal battle that could take years to resolve.

Heathrow is outdated and cannot compete with a Modern airports that will post flights 24 hours a day and provide many more flight operators.

Land in London has become very valuable, with the current land mass at Heathrow it could yield a massive investment well into the future replacing the airport.

...for God's sake - let us get on and do SOMETHING! Cameron's "promises" and "pledges" are, as usual, empty and mendacious.

I would trust Boris Johnson far more on this matter. The least worst option would be, perhaps, an extra runway at Gatwick, notwithstanding the topography, followed by the inner Thames estuary option.

Heathrow should not even be in the frame - it was never envisaged to run at its current capacity and it is only a matter of time (no if's or but's about this one) before a fully laden passenger aircraft crashes into the middle of London - perhaps on Westminster itself (mixed feelings about that scenario).

Suzy444 - I agree. Do we really need all this vast expenditure on HS2 and now this!? Does the argument always have to concentrate on trade, business and money. Oh I suppose I have now generated a "but you do realise do you not that trade is our lifeblood and etc. rubbish" signed A Banker.
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