A third runway should be built at Heathrow, but only if there is a binding air quality commitment that compliance with EU limits will not be delayed, the Airports Commission said today.
The call for a commitment on air quality comes in the long-awaited 342-page report issued today (July 1). In the report, the Commission unanimously concluded that the option to build a third runway at Heathrow â€œpresents the strongest caseâ€ for increasing the UKâ€™s airport capacity â€œand offers the greatest strategic and economic benefitsâ€.
It said that expanding Heathrow would also generate up to Â£147 billion in GDP impacts over 60 years, provide around 40 new destinations from the airport and more than 70,000 new jobs by 2050.
However, the Commission â€“ led by Sir Howard Davies â€“ stressed that any such expansion should be combined with a â€œsignificant package of measures to address its environmental and community impactsâ€.
Without appropriate air quality mitigation in place, the report states that both Heathrow expansion schemes which have been considered â€œwould delay compliance with the Directive and hence would not be deliverable within the legal frameworkâ€.
The report adds that it would accordingly need to be demonstrated that by 2030, air monitoring receptors in the vicinity of the expanded airport site will â€œnot report the highest concentrations of NO2â€ in the London sector.
Currently, the highest levels of NO2 in London are on the Marylebone Road, which is the receptor used to report air quality levels for the Greater London area to the EU.
The Commission concludes, though, that â€œalthough expansion results in increases in emissions these levels are small when viewed in the national contextâ€.
Commenting on the Commissionâ€™s recommendations, Sir Howard Davies said: â€œAt the end of this extensive work programme our conclusions are clear and unanimous: the best answer is to expand Heathrowâ€™s capacity through a new northwest runway.â€
He also urged the government not to delay making a final decision as this would be â€œincreasingly costly and will be seen, nationally and internationally, as a sign that the UK is unwilling or unable to take the steps needed to maintain its position as a well-connected, open trading economy in the twenty-first centuryâ€.
Set up in 2012, the Commission looked at three schemes for UK airport capacity expansion: a third runway at Heathrow; extending the existing northern runway at Heathrow; and building a second runway at Gatwick Airport in Sussex.
Todayâ€™s report describes each option as â€œcredibleâ€, adding that â€œnone of the schemes would lead to an exceedance of air quality objectives at any receptor relevant to human health in 2030â€.
Gatwick Airport has previously criticised both the Heathrow expansion schemes for their perceived impact on air quality, while claiming that its own expansion scheme would have no impact on the UKâ€™s ability to meet EU legal air pollution limits (see AirQualityNews.com story).
Todayâ€™s report also states that the Gatwick second runway scheme is â€œnot forecast to cause any exceedences of legal limits by 2030â€.
But, according to the Commissionâ€™s report, while the Gatwick scheme is â€œfeasibleâ€, the additional capacity from this scheme would be more focussed on short-haul intra-European routes and the economic benefits would be â€œconsiderably smallerâ€.
It also states that advice from Natural England has indicated that ecological sites around Gatwick are â€œmore likely to be sensitive to changes in air quality than the sites around Heathrowâ€.
Meanwhile, the report does concede that extending the Heathrow northern runway would deliver similar economic benefits to the preferred third runway option, in addition to being less costly and require the loss of fewer homes.
However, it believes that extending the northern runway at Heathrow provides a smaller increase in capacity and is â€œless attractive from a noise and air quality perspectiveâ€.
In order to mitigate the noise impacts from a third Heathrow runway, the report recommends a ban on all scheduled night flights between 11.30pm to 6am at Heathrow, which is â€œonly possible with expansionâ€.
In addition, it calls for a legally binding â€˜noise envelopeâ€™ to put limits on the level of noise created by the airport, as well as a new aviation noise levy to fund an expanded programme of mitigation, including noise insulation for homes, schools and other community facilities.
An independent aviation noise authority should also be formed, the report suggests, which would have a statutory right to be consulted on flightpaths and other operating procedures at all UK airports.
The Commission concluded that expanding Heathrow with the above measures in place will â€œnot increase noise above current levelsâ€.
The government is not expected to formally respond to the Commissionâ€™s recommendation until autumn 2015.