Why there are fresh questions over the third runway at Heathrow

A delay to the timetable for MPs to vote on the policy statement that will guide the planning decision on Heathrow's expansion and reports that the Labour Party may withdraw its support for the project have raised questions over the future of the scheme.

Heathrow: an additional consultation period has been announced on the draft National Policy Statement
Heathrow: an additional consultation period has been announced on the draft National Policy Statement

Earlier this month, transport secretary Chris Grayling announced that his department was undertaking a further round of consultation on the proposed third runway at Heathrow prior to publication of the all-important National Policy Statement (NPS) approving it in principle. Grayling said additional consultation on the draft NPS was needed in order to take account of updated passenger forecasts for Heathrow and the government’s now published plans for addressing poor air quality. But with the timetable for the crucial parliamentary vote on the forthcoming NPS already pushed back into next year, and reports that the Labour Party may withdraw its support for the project, fresh questions are being raised about whether it will go ahead.

This fresh consultation should not actually delay the project further than the year’s delay already caused by the snap general election, which interrupted the necessary process of select committee scrutiny of the draft NPS. Last year, the government committed to designate the NPS by this July, but Grayling announced that month that the final NPS would instead be laid before parliament by June 2018. Angus Walker, head of infrastructure at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, said the prospect of judicial reviews meant that the actual application was not now likely to be approved until 2022.

Objections to the project have increasingly centred around the issue of local air quality, with legal pollution limits already regularly breached, largely due to ground-level traffic. Sir John Armitt, deputy chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, said critics ignored likely future changes in car use. "When you have more electric vehicles and fewer dirty diesels, clearly pollution will have decreased," he said. However, Walker said: "It is difficult to see how six million more people a year are going to visit the airport without having any impact on air quality."

Publication of the government’s air quality plan – ostensibly the reason for this additional consultation – is not actually thought likely to impact consultees’ responses. David Leam, infrastructure director at business lobby group London First, said: "The air quality plan itself doesn’t change anything. This is about making the process absolutely rock solid against legal challenge." Nevertheless, he said, judicial reviews – which can be undertaken after designation of the NPS and again when a full Development Consent Order for the project is granted – are still likely. "Judicial review is now just part of the campaigner’s toolkit, and people bring them almost regardless of merit," he said.

However, the political challenge looks to be getting harder too. Press reports last month suggested that the Labour Party is likely to abandon its long-standing support for the scheme and attempt to vote down the NPS in parliament. A party spokesman said that its policy was that support for the scheme was conditional on four tests – on issues including air quality – being met. Duncan Field, UK head of planning at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, said: "There’s still a majority in parliament in favour of Heathrow. However, if there’s a whipped opposition voting against that becomes a different equation."

Technically, the 2008 Planning Act allows the government to press ahead and designate the NPS despite a vote against in parliament, but practically most agree with Walker that losing the vote would be a "death knell" for the scheme. Even if the government wins the vote, Labour opposition would still spell serious trouble. "It would be much harder to proceed if the opposition said it won’t go ahead," said Leam. "Investors may say it’s much too risky."

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