Heathrow runway is a long way off, by Angus Walker

Headlines earlier this month such as 'Heathrow third runway gets go-ahead from Chris Grayling' (Guardian) and 'Heathrow expansion gets green light from government as transport secretary Chris Grayling hails "historic moment"' (City AM) may have given you the impression that construction was now able to start on the new runway.

Even the House of Commons transport select committee said in its report that ‘votes to approve the [National Policy Statement] in both Houses of Parliament in effect give outline planning permission for construction of a northwest runway’. The truth is rather different, and those headlines merely recorded a minor staging post in a lengthy process.

There are two main, albeit overlapping, stages: the process leading to approval of government policy that the airport should expand, and the process leading to approval of Heathrow Airport Ltd’s application to build the new runway. We are nearing the end of the first stage, and have only just started the second stage. Both stages will almost certainly attract litigation that will hold them up.

The government policy stage ends with ‘designation’ (like local plan adoption) of a National Policy Statement. This must be preceded by a vote in the House of Commons, which is yet to take place, although the final version of the NPS has been deposited and, at the time of writing, the vote is expected within days.

This will be the first NPS (out of 11) for which the vote is not just a rubber-stamping exercise, although I predict that it will get through. The moment of designation shortly afterwards triggers a six-week judicial review challenge period and if, as expected, one or more challenges are made, their resolution will take months. Contrary to what the transport select committee might think, a designated NPS would not give any permission, outline or otherwise, for the runway, but would merely say that Heathrow is a suitable location.

Meanwhile, HAL is preparing its application under the Planning Act 2008 (technically, it doesn’t need to wait until the NPS has been sorted out). As those familiar with the process will know, there must be statutory consultation before the application can be made and this is expected next year – earlier this year there was a consultation exercise, but it was non-statutory. The actual application will follow that, probably in 2020, and will take about 18 months from start to finish. The examination might exceptionally be extended beyond six months given its complexity, which would be ironic given that the Planning Act 2008 was created largely to allow Heathrow expansion (plus a few nuclear power stations) to go ahead.

That takes us to late 2021 and is also likely to trigger litigation. HAL could theoretically press ahead while the litigation is being resolved, but might have to undo what it had done if the challenges succeeded. So it is likely to be at least four years until a spade is put in the ground.

Angus Walker is a partner at Bircham Dyson Bell

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