The government's announcement that it will delay its decision on the expansion of London's Heathrow Airport for at least another six months has disappointed - if not surprised - many infrastructure specialists, as well as the wider business community. But the delay is not immediately being seen by commentators as a clear kick into the long grass for the project.
They also point out that the delay announcement contains significant new acceptance of the findings of Sir Howard Davies' Airports Commission and a commitment to create a National Policy Statement (NPS) on airports for new capacity to be delivered through the nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) route, as opposed to a hybrid bill.
When the commission announced its preference for a third runway at Heathrow in July, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged a response by the end of the year. That response has turned out to be a delay until at least next summer for further air quality, carbon emission, noise and community impact studies to be conducted on all three of the commission's shortlisted options - which also include a new runway at Gatwick Airport and a lengthened northern runway at Heathrow. Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said the government accepted the commission's case that a new runway is needed in the South East by 2030.
While infrastructure experts said the delay would clearly help to prevent the expansion of Heathrow being the crunch issue during next spring's elections for London mayor, they agreed that the additional analysis work was vital. Nevertheless, they also said the government could have chosen to endorse the third runway recommendation in principle, subject to further work.
Robbie Owen, head of infrastructure planning and government affairs at law firm Pinsent Masons, said ministers' acceptance of the need for new runway capacity and the shortlist of options underscored the value of the Airports Commission process. "We might find that in six to nine months there is a decision and there is an NPS. You could take the view that everything that will be done is part of preparations for consultation on a draft of the NPS," he said.
Angus Walker, partner at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, said air quality data had been a major weakness in the commission's recommendation. "It is clear that more work on air quality needs to be done before there is the commercial, legal and political confidence that a runway at Heathrow could operate," he said. Walker added that the government's actions should act as a reminder to the fledgling National Infrastructure Commission that its work would be the basis for a political decision rather a draft decision to be rubber-stamped by government.
Martha Grekos, partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell, said consenting a new runway through the NSIP process appeared to be the most sensible route, but would leave any future project more vulnerable to a High Court challenge than would a hybrid bill, which cannot be taken to judicial review. "The whole Planning Act regime was designed for schemes like this, so it would be strange not to use the NSIP process," she said. "It is feasible that an NPS could be designated within two years of the government deciding to act, if there were no legal challenges to the process." However, Grekos believes challenges would be highly likely.