The government's Airports Commission has given the green light to expand Heathrow and build a third runway.
The recommendation is for a new runway further to the west of the existing two. The Commission believes this would reduce the numbers of people affected by extra noise, though with an acknowledgement that a third runway will obviously make the situation worse — even with aircraft getting quieter as technology advances. There's also a proposal to ban all flights between 11.30pm and 6am.
Air quality is the other significant barrier to Heathrow's expansion, with pollution around the airport failing EU limits even now. The report calculates that a third runway would increase nitrogen oxide levels by 26%, and particulate matter in the air by 15%-22%. Even with mitigation strategies, air quality — and growing public awareness of what pollution does to us — will make this one of the major stumbling blocks.
So why Heathrow? The Commission says it's the proposal that delivers the most economic impact for a lower cost and the loss of fewer homes than expanding Gatwick. The report believes a new runway will create 70,000 new jobs by 2050 and add 40 new destinations, including 10-12 new long-haul routes.
This decision probably isn't a surprise to anyone and Heathrow has been lobbying hard — spending £1.7m with Transport for London advertising its case. But, as the leader of Wandsworth Council Ravi Govindia explains, the Commission has
"failed to understand the legal, political and environmental barriers that ensure Heathrow expansion will never happen. The environmental controls [the report] suggests are inadequate, untested and in some cases undeliverable. They would inevitably be watered down and fail to protect millions of people from severe blight. Already Heathrow's leadership has refused to endorse them."
There are several prominent Conservative MPs — including Boris Johnson these days — whose constituencies would be affected by Heathrow expansion; David Cameron himself has ruled out a third runway in the past; Tory mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith is vehemently opposed and many of the Labour candidates are also not in favour (Tessa Jowell is adopting a wait and see approach). No matter what the recommendations today, a bigger Heathrow could easily founder under political considerations.