As has been widely trailed, the Government has entered a further period of prevarication over where to add capacity to the South East’s aviation capacity.
Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission published its report in July unanimously recommending a third runway at Heathrow as the best option for the UK. The Commission had begun its work in 2012, continuing a long debate about airport expansion.
The Government promised a response to the report by the end of 2015. However, it has now announced that the decision will not be taken until summer 2016, to allow further work to be done in particular on economic impact and mitigation.
The Government statement issued positions it as in support of additional capacity.
It says: “The government has accepted the case for airport expansion in the south-east and the Airports Commission’s shortlist of options for expansion. It has also identified the most appropriate way of delivering planning consents for new capacity.”
However, it continues: “The government will undertake a package of further work and we anticipate that it will conclude over the summer.
“The government will do this quickly so that the timetable for delivering capacity set out by the Airports Commission can be met.”
The Government did describe a new mechanism for delivering planning consents for airport expansion – ‘the “Airports national policy statement” (NPS), following which a scheme promoter would need to apply for a development consent order.
Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin said: “The case for aviation expansion is clear – but it’s vitally important we get the decision right so that it will benefit generations to come. We will undertake more work on environmental impacts, including air quality, noise and carbon.
“We will continue work on all the shortlisted locations, so that the timetable for more capacity set out by Sir Howard is met.
“At the first opportunity I will make a statement to the House to make clear our plans”.
The further delay will frustrate businesses and those who prioritise economic growth for West London and the UK, but delight opponents of expansion including Hillingdon Council and the 2M Group.
It could be that the Government is trying to avoid the decision being an issue in the London Mayoral election, due to happen in May 2016. Zac Goldsmith is a noted opponent of expansion at Heathrow. However, his only realistic opponent, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, is also opposed, so it would not have divided the vote in any case.
It could also be that there is concern within Government that a decision taken now would be vulnerable to Judicial Review on environmental grounds, and that they want to do yet more work on the impacts and mitigation to try to reduce the possibility of that happening. However, such challenges are inevitable. Those groups arraigned against expansion will pursue every option in every court possible however many reports are prepared.
It may simply be that this Government lacks the courage to take what is perceived as an unpopular decision to expand Heathrow. That would be disappointing. With every day that passes without a decision taken on how to give London the international connections it needs to continue to compete on the international stage as a World City and a desirable investment location is another day for cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, who do not have the same capacity constraints, to chip away at London’s position.
We damage ourselves, our economy, and the job prospects of future generations by not taking a decision. This is irresponsible.
David Cameron speaking during Prime Minister’s Question Time immediately following the publication of the Davies Report said: “I guarantee that a decision will be taken by the end of the year”. It seems that will not now be the case.
Earlier in December he changed his promise to one that his Government would give a “clear direction”. It seems that the clear direction is nowhere.