In Depth

Will Heathrow’s third runway ever be built?

Parliament approves new runway but Boris Johnson says many obstacles to expansion remain

A Greenpeace protest against a third runway takes place outside Parliament on Monday

MPs yesterday gave the go-ahead for Heathrow’s third runway after decades of debate, but comments by the foreign secretary have since raised the prospect that it may never actually be built.

What did Johnson say?

“In view of the very considerable difficulties that still face the third runway — its cost and the appalling air and noise pollution entailed by the project — I believe it will be a very long time before we have to make good on that pledge; if indeed a 3rd runway ever comes about” he wrote.

Johnson “faced ridicule and criticism from all sides after he staged a vanishing act to avoid having to vote in the Commons”, says the London Evening Standard. It emerged yesterday that he had undertaken a last-minute trip to Afghanistan, enabling him to dodge a choice between quitting his ministerial position or voting with the Government for expansion.

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said Johnson had “proven himself utterly devoid of courage, strength, or principle”, and that “never again should he dare to call Winston Churchill his role model”.

But is he right?

It's telling that discussion of the vote “has focussed almost entirely on political chicanery and not the whys and wherefores of exactly how Heathrow is going to be expanded, and when” says Patrick Maguire in The New Statesman.

Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has already said the party could “block” expansion over environmental concerns if it came to power. He previously said Heathrow expansion would never happen.

Opposition is likely to solidify as the extent of the expansion is revealed. The £14bn project, which would almost double Heathrow’s annual capacity to 130 million passengers, is likely to lead to hundreds of homes being demolished in the nearby villages of Longford, Harmondsworth and Sipson.

When is work due to begin?

The clock is ticking: the Department for Transport has previously said that no expansion would mean London’s five airports would be full by 2034.

But even now that Parliament has given its consent, “it’s likely to be another three years before any spades hit the ground” says The Guardian.

Detailed plans will need to be drawn up, and will again have to go out for public consultation. They could also be subject to judicial review, with several local authorities around Heathrow expected to mount a legal challenge. A separate review of flight paths and airspace is also due, which could fan opposition in communities that find themselves under new routes.

For each delay and each new hurdle, the chance of another political reversal increases. Far from being the decisive step towards breaking ground, says the New Statesman, Monday’s vote will simply “open another protracted chapter in the 20-year story of how Heathrow probably won’t get a third runway”.

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