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Airport Commission backs Heathrow expansion of third runway

6 min read

01 July 2015

While each of three shortlisted proposals for expansion in London were deemed credible options by the Airport Commission in a new report, it "unanimously concluded" the third Heathrow runway would be the best for the UK.

Howard Davies’ report recommended that the new runway should come with severe restrictions to reduce the environmental and noise effects. As well as banning night flights, Davies suggested the government should make a parliamentary pledge not to build a fourth runway.

It predicted the expansion would add £147bn in economic growth, along with 70,000 jobs by 2050.

While Downing Street officials said they wanted to digest the report thoroughly, and avoid making “a snap judgement”, London mayor Boris Johnson appeared on Radio 4 to give his opinion.

He mentioned that the report only solves the problem up until 2030 and it would spark demand for a fourth runway, which would have a “catastrophic” impact for the city’s population. From Johnson’s perspective, the plans would lead to a significant increase in noise and vehicle pollution, saying “this is the sort of thing you could possibly have got away with in China in the 1950s”.

Johnson also said it was “totally fatuous” to propose a legal ban on a fourth runway as no government can restrict its successors.

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Heathrow’s CEO, John Hollande-Kaye, disputed Johnson’s rebuttal that the runway “is not going to happen”, saying the pro-side had “huge support form businesses and local communities who want to grow their exports” and this would allow them to reach global markets.

The commission said it was “clear and unanimous” Heathrow’s plan was the strongest case for future airport capacity and would deliver the greatest economic benefits. The £17bn development would result in 250,000 more flights a year, as well as a GDP boost and more jobs, but would also mean demolishing 783 homes – including most of Harmondsworth village.

John Cridland, director general of the CBI, said the report emphasised the economic opportunities Britain could be missing out on: “Each day the government delays taking the decision, the UK loses out as our competitors reap the rewards and strengthen their trade links.”

He added that creating new routes to emerging markets would “open doors to trade, boost growth, create jobs and drive investment right across the country”. The CBI’s research indicated that eight new daily routes could boost exports by up to £1bn.

“The government can send the message, loud and clear, that Britain is open for business,” Cridland said. 

The other shortlisted options were an extended double runway at Heathrow and a second runway at Gatwick. The report said the latter was “feasible”, but ultimately the additional capacity would be more focused on intra-European routes, so the economic benefits would be “considerably smaller”. 

The Thames Estuary proposal, backed by Johnson, was not favoured because it would require a completely new transport network – Davies estimated around £30-£50bn in terms of public expenditure. While it would have the advantage of pushing noise away from congested communities, it wasn’t a good place “from a national point of view” and had serious environmental obstacles too. 

The report is expected to prompt renewed discussions, after the government cancelled plans for a new runway at the UK’s biggest airport five years ago. David Cameron established the commission in 2012 to explore the need for more airport capacity.

Davies, the former director of the London School of Economics, did recommend numerous caveats before the expansions should go ahead, but also said the government should “move as quickly as it can”. Otherwise, it would be seen as reluctant to take the necessary steps forward to maintain Britain’s position as “a well-connected open trading economy”.

The FSB’s national chairman, John Allan, agreed: “With the decision in, there must not be any further excuses or delays. To do so is to put the long-term economic health of the UK at risk.” 

He also said it was pleasing to see the report consider how the rest of the country’s growth would be impacted, and that the safeguards offered to minimise environmental damage meant “ministers must not use this as an excuse for inaction”.  

Meanwhile, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, who is the frontrunner to be the party’s candidate to replace Johnson in 2016, has reiterated his promise to resign if the government approved a third runway at Heathrow. He told LBC radio that the expansion is not “politically deliverable, anymore than it is legally deliverable”.

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