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NEWS Last modified on May 13, 2016

Blog: Further delays for UK runway decision?

Although the long wait goes on for a decision from the UK government on where a new runway should be located, the last couple of weeks have seen some interesting developments, writes Tom Henderson, legal director, Bircham Dyson Bell LLP.

On May 4, the Transport Select Committee reported on its inquiry into the issue, pulling no punches in criticising the government heavily and calling for a decision at the earliest possible opportunity. 

In a damning assessment, it said that “the creation of the Airports Commission briefly held out the hope that an evidence-based decision would end years of political dithering, but the government has largely squandered this opportunity by delaying its decision and calling for further work”. 

Perhaps as a demonstration of decisiveness, the Committee stated its preference for expansion at Heathrow. 

The Transport Select Committee’s views will undoubtedly carry significant weight with government. After all, it was the report of another parliamentary committee, the Environmental Audit Committee, that was the main reason (or was it excuse?) for the Government to postpone its decision in December last year.
Gatwicktower
On May 5, Sadiq Khan was elected as Mayor of London. Khan supports expansion at Gatwick, and like his predecessor Boris Johnson and defeated opponent Zac Goldsmith, opposes expansion at Heathrow. 

There is an important distinction though, since it is now easier for the Conservative Government to do something which a (now Labour) Mayor disagrees with.

Then on May 11, Heathrow wrote to the Prime Minister outlining its pledges to “meet and exceed” the Airports Commission’s conditions for expansion around air quality and noise, including an extended ban on night flights (albeit not quite the hours the Airports Commission recommended).

So this might be characterised as a good week for Heathrow, but the issues which have hampered a decision show no sign of abating. In particular, the air quality issue remains an intractable problem. 

Heathrow has committed not to release additional capacity until it is clear that it would not delay compliance with EU air quality limits. But doubt remains over whether this condition can ever be met, particularly in the light of news that the adequacy of the UK’s own plans to achieve compliance will again be scrutinised by the courts, following ClientEarth’s second legal challenge.
heathrow pax
It was their victory in the Supreme Court last year which caused the government to have to revise its original plans.

Interestingly ongoing uncertainty over the government’s air quality strategy is not mentioned in the Transport Select Committee’s report.

Added to this, Heathrow’s plans to meet air quality limits rely on matters beyond its control, namely improvements to public transport, and the implementation of a low emissions zone. A key player in delivering any of this would be TfL, the Mayor’s transport body, and it has been well-publicised that TfL puts a far higher price tag on delivery of the measures than Heathrow does. 

So although the Transport Select Committee is pressing for a quick decision, the ongoing uncertainty around the issues that need to be solved, and the distraction of the EU referendum, mean that it would not be a surprise to see the government’s decision delayed yet further.

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