MPs on Parliament’s Transport Committee continue to back Heathrow expansion but have criticised the government for failing to end “decade of dithering” over a decision.
Chair of the Transport Committee, Labour MP Louise Ellman, today (May 4) said the government must “make up its mind” on a new Heathrow runway, adding that any work to mitigate environmental issues such as air pollution impacts “can run in parallel with other pre-construction work”.
However, this stance has been criticised by environmental lawyers ClientEarth, which said that air quality concerns must be resolved before any decision on airport expansion is made.
Mrs Ellman’s comments came in support of a new report by the select committee, which was published today following its inquiry into UK airport capacity expansion that launched in February. That inquiry heard evidence from the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, among others.
Mr McLoughlin told the Committee that the case for UK capacity expansion was “clear” but that further work was needed before a final decision could be taken on whether this should happen at Heathrow or Gatwick.
It was suggested a final decision should “conclude over the summer” in order to deliver additional capacity by 2030, but there are now fears a decision could be delayed even longer than this.
“We do not under-estimate the scale of the challenge but we believe that the noise and environmental effects can be managed as part of the pre-construction phase after a decision has been made on location” – Transport Committee
But the Committee believes that the “difficult, and for some people unpopular” decision over UK airport expansion must be taken by the government without delay and that work on environmental impacts should take place in parallel with any construction work.
It adds that the arguments both in favour and against expansion “have changed little in a quarter of a century” but that “few now disagree that additional airport capacity is needed in the South East if the UK is to remain economically competitive”.
Today’s report also voices its continued support for constructing a third Heathrow runway, although it recognises that environmental campaigners have “voiced legitimate concerns” which “deserve serious consideration”.
The report states: “We do not under-estimate the scale of the challenge but we believe that the noise and environmental effects can be managed as part of the pre-construction phase after a decision has been made on location, as can the challenge of improving surface access and devising suitable schemes for compensation for residents in affected communities. It is vital that a decision is taken.”
“It would be economic madness to begin any pre-construction before resolving the crucial issue of air quality which is damaging the health of people living and working around Heathrow and further afield” – James Thornton, ClientEarth
This argument was disputed by ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton, who said that: “Air pollution is a major and unresolved concern for Heathrow and must be dealt with before any decision is made to go ahead.”
He added: “It would be economic madness to begin any pre-construction before resolving the crucial issue of air quality which is damaging the health of people living and working around Heathrow and further afield.”
“Greater London already has illegal levels of air pollution, which the Supreme Court has ordered the government to bring within legal limits as soon as possible.”
“For once, we are in agreement with the Department for Transport – that more work on the environmental impacts, including air quality, is required before any work on any new runways can begin.”
Today’s Transport Committee report documents the progress of the debate on airport expansion from the 1990s to December 2015, when the government announced it would be delaying its planned final decision in order to carry out further investigatory work on the environmental impacts of airport expansion – including air quality.
This followed the independent Airport Commission’s recommendation last summer that a third runway be built at Heathrow Airport, rather than constructing a second runway at expansion rival Gatwick Airport in Sussex.
Chair of the Transport Committee, Labour MP Louise Ellman, said: “The government must make up its mind. The decision on location is not the end of the process, it is the start of one. Real progress cannot begin until the location is declared. Work on environmental issues can run in parallel with other pre-construction work.
“The months ticking by constitute time wasted for the UK’s economic prosperity. UK PLC needs to know that a decision will be taken. Doing nothing means the UK continues to lose out.”