Last reviewed 14 August 2018

A key political milestone was passed at the end of June when a substantial majority of MPs voted for a new Heathrow northwest runway planning application to go forward. But that still leaves major environmental and planning barriers to be crossed. Jon Herbert reports.

It is ironic perhaps that the UK should be running out of carbon dioxide (CO2) for fizzy drinks and food processing at the very moment a political greenlight was given for Heathrow expansion. One of the consequences of a new third runway will be the rest of Britain having to tighten its future CO2 emissions belt a notch or two further to offset the potential environmental damage that aircraft cause.

By a margin of 415 votes to 119, MPs have finally backed the Government’s position that a massive air infrastructure investment west of London will provide the strategic aviation capacity a feisty post-Brexit Britain may need to compete successfully on the world stage.

However, nothing is for free. Making it possible for up to 260,000 extra flights to use the Heathrow international and domestic flight air-hub each year will inevitably come with environmental price tags, as well as construction, service and commercial opportunities.

Sacrifices for the common good

It is often argued that all citizens must endure some form of local inconvenience for society to work well. This will be easier said than done for those living and working under the flight path. If the investment goes ahead, circa 750 houses will be demolished in neighbouring Harmondsworth. Longford and Sipson will also be hit hard.

Other impacts could have more pragmatic solutions. Noise, it is suggested, could largely be resolved by providing enough money to pay for triple glazing, a 6.5-hour night flight restriction and advances in aviation technology. Recent amendments to the Heathrow plan could see the total number of people affected reduced to (a still large) 165,000, with quieter planes landing further west on steeper flight paths.

Air quality is more complex. Emissions from the increased number of car journeys to and from the airport won’t fit into local air quality limits. The answer has to be a higher-capacity, reliable, attractive, low-pollution and low-carbon public transport system but fitting this into the local landscape is not going to be easy.

There is also the challenge of overlapping a part of the new runway with a short stretch of the 117-mile long M25; moving the motorway and/or building the runway over the carriageway are two open options.

The point is often made that small tax increases across the board are vital to pay for essential public services. The same principle could soon apply to carbon. The UK is irreversibly legally locked into draconian greenhouse gas emissions cuts by mid-century. Aviation is currently exempt because of its strategic importance but Heathrow expansion, or airport expansion anywhere else in the UK, means that deeper CO2 cuts will have to be made by every company, council and community.

The good, the bad and the difficult

If and when the project goes ahead with an opening date of 2026, it will have been on the basis of a £14 billion private investment and a £2.6 billion compensation package. Up to 40 new long-haul trading links, a doubling of cargo-handling capacity and more domestic routes will be created at the UK’s only true airport hub. Annual passenger capacity could rise from 85.5 million to 130 million.

By supporting the Government’s Airports National Policy Statement, MPs have cleared the way for Heathrow to submit an application for development consent on a project that, it is predicted, could unlock billions of pounds worth of growth while helping to create some 40,000 skilled jobs countrywide as the UK prepares for the implications of Brexit. Estimates in the size of the boost to the national economy vary from £30 billion to £74 billion.

Without a new runway, any increase in new global routes would have to be at the expense of reduced connections to other destinations. However, with expansion, low-cost carriers like easyJet could operate on a larger scale.


If the application has an easy flight path with approval granted within 18 months, construction could start in 2021. However, severe planning turbulence is expected. Optimistically, the airport says it is ready to sign new contracts worth £150 million with British businesses in the next 12 months. The location of a series of off-site logistics hubs will also be announced soon.

However, as Heathrow prepares for a second public consultation before submitting its proposals to the Planning Inspectorate, Hillingdon, Richmond-upon-Thames, Wandsworth and Hammersmith & Fulham councils have said very publicly that they are planning robust legal opposition. The local authority in the Prime Minister’s own Windsor and Maidenhead constituency is thinking of joining them. Windsor MP, Adam Afriyie, was one of eight Conservative rebels who voted against the Government’s Department for Transport proposition at the end of June.

These councils mean business. Wandsworth Conservative council leader, Councillor Ravi Govindia, says the third runway proposal will not survive “independent, lawful and rational” scrutiny in the courts. Councillor Ray Puddifoot, leader of Conservative-run Hillingdon, which is home to the airport and has Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, as MP, has warned Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, not to frustrate any legal challenge to the “highly flawed” project. He added that “for the avoidance of doubt”, the Commons vote will “only encourage us to refer the matter to the High Court as soon as possible”.

Councils have a six-week window to challenge the decision through judicial review once the Government formally designates the National Policy Statement supporting the third runway. Campaigners say paperwork for legal action could be ready within days, and that they have the support of London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, and Greenpeace. Describing the vote as the “wrong decision” for Londoners, Khan added, “I’m joining the legal action brought by local authorities in opposition to Heathrow expansion.”

Up and over

If consent is eventually granted, the travel and environmental impacts of “adjusting” the M25, which is already notorious for congestion near Heathrow, could be severe. Physically relocating carriageways is not achieved by overnight lane closures and extended weekend working. Even simple traffic incidents already cause hours of delay, miles of queuing and big knock-on financial impacts. Disruption could feasibly go on for years.

Ingenious engineering could see the route of the M25’s current 12 lanes moved to the west by 150m and lowered by 7m to create a tunnel under the new runway between junction 14 and 15. It might also include building a 600m long 14 lane replacement stretch of motorway. An alternative could be to shorten the projected runway from 3500m to 3200m.

The original overall cost was set at some £16.8 billion which Heathrow says can be reduced to £14 billion. Taxpayers will pay £1.2 billion to improve transport links. The RAC has warned that high-quality access roads must be provided too which will not come cheap, although the motoring organisation adds that widening the motorway will bring potential benefits.

One other piece of the transport jigsaw will be the 13km long Heathrow Southern Railway “missing link” railway line connecting Heathrow Airport to the local South East network. Three routes between the airport and Chertsey are possibilities, with tunnelling the full distance also an option.

… on the other hand

All of which makes the alternatives that MPs have overridden appear quite appealing. Gatwick has long argued that it doesn’t make sense to fly a quarter of a million more aircraft annually over one of the world’s most densely populated cities when they can cross over mostly green fields instead. Why tunnel under the busiest motorway in Europe when construction could take place on land already set aside for expansion? It argues.

The strategic role of the UK’s 40 or so regional airports has to be clarified too; many are important catalysts in their own right for economic growth that is linked directly to improving the performance of other vital sectors. One of the first questions inward investors are said to ask local planners concerns the proximity of airports. Regional airports are also important for tourism.

Passenger numbers for Birmingham, Belfast International, Newcastle, Leeds Bradford, Inverness and Newquay rose by at least 10% in 2017. Airports such as Bristol, with planning permission to increase passenger numbers from 6.3 million to 10 million, plus Luton, and of course the UK’s third largest airport, Manchester, are enjoying a business boom.

In 2017, Manchester took care of 27.8 million passengers, an 8.5% increase over 2016 and 10 million more than the 17.8 million it welcomed in 2011. Its increasing number of direct long-haul routes now includes Manchester to Seattle, as well as the Middle East and Asia. Birmingham, the UK’s seventh largest, flies direct to New York and Toronto and even has the occasional service to Turkmenistan! You can fly non-stop to Amritsar and the Golden Temple in India from Birmingham but not from London!

Belfast, Edinburgh and Glasgow all fly to a wide number of US destinations. Newcastle, Liverpool, and, to a lesser extent, East Midlands, have been expanding impressively too, as has Leeds Bradford which as the UK’s highest airport “often suffers from wind problems” that affect take-offs and landings.

Autonomous vehicles

Heathrow and Gatwick have been expanding technically in another direction. In March, Heathrow finished its first trials of an autonomous airside vehicle in partnership with cargo handling specialist, IAG Cargo, and UK software specialist, Oxbotica — which made it possible for the vehicles to run autonomously without using GPS or any other external technology.

A three and half week trial of Oxbotica’s specially designed autonomous “CargoPod” on a cargo route around the airside perimeter accumulated more than 200km worth of data. IAG and Heathrow are using this to assess the wider potential for driverless vehicles in airport environments.

Meanwhile, Gatwick will host the world’s first large-scale trial of autonomous airfield vehicles. This is also being run with Oxbotica and will see a fleet of electric vehicles used to shuttle staff around airside airport areas.