MPs' report exposes flaws in third runway plan

Big flaws in the plan to build a third runway at Heathrow have been exposed by the House of Commons Transport Committee's recommendations in it's report on the draft Airports National Policy Statement (NPS), a document which specifies requirements that Heathrow would need to meet to gain development consent. 

The draft has already been revised to include updated passenger forecasts and an Air Quality Plan but after hearing evidence from a broad range of witnesses, the MPs have identified many obstacles to a third runway, that if not tackled before the NPS is approved could lead to a successful legal challenge. 

Heathrow's proposals painted green and purple to disguise the bleak reality of a third runway

Heathrow's proposals painted green and purple to disguise the bleak reality of a third runway

The MPs have said plans should not be approved without tougher measures to protect communities and passengers. The environment and financial concerns should to be addressed before the NPS goes before a House of Commons vote, which had been expected before the summer recess in July. If the recommendations are followed, it is hard to see how the work required could be done within the short timeframe. 

I still cannot see a third runway ever being built at Heathrow. The arguments against Heathrow expansion are stronger now than they’ve ever been.
— Christine Taylor, anti-runway campaigner for over 15 years

The report shows there is serious concern about the risk involved in if this project is started, including who will end up footing the bill. Willie Walsh, in particular, made it clear that airlines would not pay for it. If the price of tickets is forced up, Heathrow passengers must either shoulder the burden or take their business elsewhere, making the runway a white elephant. 

The Northwest Runway scheme, as set out in the draft NPS, is the highest cost expansion option and one of the largest privately-financed infrastructure projects anywhere in the world
— Lilian Greenwood MP, Chair of the Transport Committee


The report raises issues about:

Air Quality

Surface access

Regional connectivity

Scheme costs and airport charges 


Community impacts and compensation

Resource and waste management

The Committee also identified associated policy measures that were required if expansion at Heathrow was to be delivered effectively. These include:

Policy on airspace change

Wider Government policies on air quality, noise and surface access improvements

Effective use of existing airport capacity.

At present, the draft NPS does not guarantee that passengers will be protected from the cost risks associated with the scheme. The Secretary of State must set out how airport charges will be held down.
— Lilian Greenwood MP, Chair of the Transport Committee

The report says before votes in Parliament to approve a final NPS, the committee would like to see evidence to demonstrate that the Northwest Runway scheme is both affordable and deliverable and that steps are taken to address the valid concerns expressed in evidence about the high cost of the scheme and the significant risk that costs will rise. 

On air quality, the committee wanted to see population impact estimates updated to reflect the impacts from more aircraft movements and surface access traffic that would result form the NW runway scheme. They also recommend that the results of modelling to predict the cost of air pollution be published. They also wanted a more stringent interpretation of air quality compliance than is currently applied by the Department for Transport to support the NPS.

In addition, the committee wanted a condition in the NPS that permission will only be granted if the Secretary of State is satisfied that the proposed scheme will avoid significant adverse impacts on health and quality of life from air quality. 

Legal compliance, as the report recognises, is almost wholly dependent on measures introduced by Government at a national level. 

Heathrow has tried to convince the committee that improvements already planned to transport infrastructure will be sufficient for the demands of a third runway - including it's notorious claim that no extra vehicles will use the roads if an extra 260,000 flights take off and land at a three-runway Heathrow. 

All it takes is an accident on the route to Heathrow on the M25 to cause major disruption 

All it takes is an accident on the route to Heathrow on the M25 to cause major disruption 


The Committee wants the government to clarify which schemes are needed to support current two-runway operations at Heathrow and which are needed to support an expanded Heathrow. As part of this, the committee recommends the DfT's updated surface access modelling be published so that the likely impact on road and rail congestion of a Northwest runway (NWR) scheme is known. 

Heathrow has always tried to downplay the cost of additional transport infrastructure for a third runway. It has claimed that the CAA will set what is fair for them to pay. However, as we have seen with Crossrail when they paid far less than originally suggested, this will not stop the taxpayer being forced to pay for what is, essentially, a project for a foreign-owned company. 

The Committee wants an update of the predicted costs to be put in the final NPS. (It is only right that some northern MPs who think that the runway will not negatively impact their constituents and that they should therefore casually vote the NPS through, understand that they are lumbering people in their area with a long-term debt to pay.) 

Proposed changes to the M25 are also going to be extremely costly and disruptive. The Committee hasn't let the crafty lack of detail in the NPS slip past them. They recommend the Government and Heathrow work to clarify the proposals and bring greater certainty to the plans - that includes details of the traffic diversions that will be needed.

How will the costs be slit between the airport and the public sector? We all need to know how much this is going to cost us, our children and our grandchildren. (Don't we have better things in this country to spend our public money on?)

Non-London regions should be relieved that the Committee wants more certainty around the eventual domestic routes on offer at Heathrow.  (Remember a Heathrow promise is worthless.) The Committee recommends that the Government provide a clear definition in the NPS of what constitutes a domestic routes. It also wants to know how it intends to secure 15% of new slots for domestic connections. MPs on the Committee clearly spotted a loophole and have asked how it will guarantee these slots are made available at suitable times spread across the day. 

On noise, the report says evidence suggests that over 300,000 people could be newly affected by significant noise annoyance from an expanded Heathrow. However, a noise threshold at 52dB level would bring another 539,327 people into the annoyance footprint. That makes the total over 1.15 million people. 

There is no information on actual flightpaths so it is impossible to know the scale of noise impacts but there is no doubt that 260,000 extra flights at a 3-runway Heathrow will make life miserable for a huge number of people. MPs will not have details of flightpaths before they are asked to vote to give the NPS approval. 

The Committee has spotted other things in its examination of noise, such at the DfT's assumptions about future fleet mix (what aircraft types will be flying in and out of Heathrow). The members think it would be helpful if it was revealed how the DfT arrived at its assumptions. 

Community impacts also featured in the report but we will cover these later. 

We are pleased that the Committee has raised huge concerns about the runway proposals but we now have to wait to see how these will be addressed.