Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon has decided to allow massive expansion of Heathrow airport. But he has rejected changes in airport operations which would allow a big increase in flights before a third runway and sixth terminal were built.1
Two of the options considered in the government’s consultation on the airport’s expansion, launched over a year ago, included ‘mixed mode’ operations in which the existing two runways are used simultaneously for both take-offs and landings thereby boosting capacity (ENDS Report 395, pp 30-33 ).
But this would have ended some of the relief west London residents currently have from noise. Mr Hoon told the Commons on 15 January he had decided not to proceed with the idea after the consultation revealed strong opposition.
He has also initially capped the permitted increase in Heathrow to 125,000 take-offs and landings, less than the 222,000 originally proposed, but still 26% above Heathrow’s current cap.
Extra capacity provided by the third runway will be subject to a ‘green slot’ principle, to encourage use of the most modern aircraft to reduce noise, air pollution and emissions. The government will consult on how this would work.
The fact that the number of flights cannot rise from current levels until the new infrastructure is built puts pressure on Heathrow owner BAA to push on with seeking planning permission and starting construction. Mr Hoon said he anticipated BAA would bring forward a planning application to enable the runway to be operational "early in the period between 2015 and 2020", a change from the consultation date of 2020.
But with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats adamant that expansion should not happen, and with many nearby residents, MPs and councils fiercely opposed, the betting is that the runway and terminal will not proceed.
Mr Hoon played down the impact on UK greenhouse gas emissions. Aviation’s emissions would be covered by the EU emissions trading scheme (EUETS) from 2012, so increases from growth at Heathrow would be compensated for by reductions elsewhere.
Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation, said: "The price signals that emissions trading sends to industry are not enough to encourage airlines to invest in better technology or put consumers off flying." The Department for Transport’s latest air passenger forecasts, published with Mr Hoon’s decision, predict the EUETS will only reduce numbers by 4% from its ‘central case’ forecast by 2030.
But Mr Hoon announced a new target: the airline industry would have to cut the UK’s share of international aviation emissions to below 2005 levels by 2050. In 2020, the Committee on Climate Change would review whether it was on-track to achieve this; approval of future growth at Heathrow "beyond the decision I have announced today" would depend on the review’s findings.
This follows an aviation industry claim that it can cut CO2 emissions to 2000 levels by 2050 even with a threefold increase in passengers. A group of airlines, airports, aerospace manufacturers and air navigation service providers, outlined how this could be achieved through improvements in technology and use of biofuels in a report in December.2
Air quality was a key issue in the consultation, with nitrogen dioxide levels near the airport exceeding EU air quality limits. Mr Hoon insisted the limit could be met by 2020, even with expansion. The revised impact assessment accompanying the decision states air quality is now forecast to be better than forecast in 2003, when the aviation White Paper first made the case for Heathrow expansion.3
The Environment Agency will be given a new role monitoring and enforcing air quality around Heathrow. Mr Hoon said extra flights would only be allowed if air quality conditions had been met. But air quality is difficult to predict, and depends on weather.
The impact assessment also states that the number of people suffering noise above World Health Organization standards will drop from 257,800 in 2002 to 142,200 by 2030 as jets become quieter. The government intends to make the noise limit statutory and this will be monitored and enforced by the Civil Aviation Authority.
Mr Hoon announced a new company, High Speed 2, has been formed to investigate a high-speed rail service between London and Scotland, incorporating a hub station for Heathrow.
Opponents of Heathrow expansion viewed these sweeteners with scepticism. There was no commitment to build the line, only to produce a feasibility report by the end of the year.
The government also pledged £250 million to promote electric or plug-in hybrid cars. It has calculated that a 5% take-up in electric cars would offset the CO2 from an expanded Heathrow.
At a joint press conference on the day of the announcement, organisations including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF, the No Third Runway Action Group, the RSPB, HACAN and the 2M Group representing 22 nearby councils, vowed to fight on.
Several are considering legal action and London mayor Boris Johnson has pledged to help fund any case. Direct action groups warn they will step up their fight. Greenpeace hopes to slow the planning process through its purchase of a piece of land earmarked for the runway.