Air quality under scrutiny ahead of crunch Heathrow vote

Measures to mitigate increases in air pollution from a third runway at Heathrow would ‘not be optional’ the government has claimed, ahead of a crucial vote on the plans next week.

MPs will vote in the House of Commons on Monday on whether to back the development, which has already secured the support of the government.

Ministers have backed proposals to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport

Earlier this month, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told MPs that the development would only go ahead ‘on the basis that it is delivered within existing air quality obligations’ (see story).

However, opponents remain sceptical that this commitment can be honoured. Some have questioned how an increase in passengers and flights can be accommodated without any negative impact on air quality in the area, as well as the potential emissions created during the construction of the new runway.

In an explanatory note published yesterday (21 June) ahead of the vote next week, the Department for Transport has maintained its position that the scheme can be delivered without impacting on progress towards legal obligations on air quality.

This is despite a report compiled on behalf of the DfT and published in October 2017, suggesting that plans to develop a new runway at the West London airport could further delay the UK’s compliance with EU air pollution limit values, which have been exceeded since 2010 (see story).


Yesterday, DfT appeared to downplay this assessment, by saying that the October analysis: “…does not take into account scheme specific mitigations that any applicant could take forward to further address the air quality impact of expansion, for example an emissions charge to access the airport.”

“To be clear, even without the additional interventions that are required of the applicant, we have demonstrated that air quality obligations could be met if Heathrow expansion occurred, recognising the inherent uncertainty associated with making forecasts into the future,” it added.

The north west runway (left) would be the third runway at Heathrow airport if built

Should MPs vote in favour of the proposal to develop a third runway at Heathrow, the developer ‘must demonstrate that the construction and operation of the scheme will not affect the UK’s ability to comply with legal obligations on air quality’, DfT said.

Measures suggested by the government that could be considered include incentives for airlines to use cleaner aircraft through differential landing charges, reduced emissions from engine taxiing and an emissions-based access scheme, for example.

DfT added in its statement: “Anyone applying for development consent will need to undertake a detailed assessment of the air quality impacts of the project, to be included as part of the environmental statement, showing existing and forecast levels of air pollutants, any likely significant air quality effects of the scheme and their mitigation. The latest available information will need to be used to underpin the assessment.

“The applicant’s assessment must demonstrate that the construction and operation of the scheme will not affect the UK’s ability to comply with legal obligations on air quality. The precise package of mitigation measures will be subject to consultation with local communities to ensure the most effective measures are taken forward.”


However, opponents to the new runway, including the Mayor of London, remain unconvinced by the government’s insistence that the scheme can be delivered within legal limits for air quality.

The Mayor, Sadiq Khan, a long-time opponent of the scheme, has this week announced that he will join any legal action from local authorities should Parliament back the development.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has signalled his intention to continue the battle against a third runway at Heathrow

In a statement issued yesterday, he said: “While I believe in a better Heathrow, I do not believe a bigger Heathrow is the right answer for London and I remain committed to opposing such a short-sighted decision. There are no plans on how to deal with the valid concerns about Heathrow expansion.

“If the vote on Monday in Parliament goes in favour of a third runway, then it is my intention to join the legal action brought by the local authorities.

“This will be a critical moment, and for the sake of Londoners affected by poor air quality, disruption from noise and the costs needed to improve transport connections I will do what I can to stop these poor plans.”


The Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) has called upon MPs to vote against the third runway on Monday — as it provides no guarantee that air quality limits can be met.

Cait Hewitt, AEF’s deputy director, said: “MPs should vote no to Heathrow expansion. The National Policy Statement supports a new runway without providing any guarantee that air quality limits can be met, or any mechanism to limit the airport’s capacity if they don’t. Forecasts suggest several areas would be at high risk of legal breaches with potentially many more areas falling within a 25% margin of statistical error associated with the modelling.

“And, while the question of compliance will depend on how effective the national air quality plan is, the NPS makes Heathrow responsible for demonstrating that air quality limits can be met. It’s impossible for MPs to feel confident that Heathrow expansion, and the extra passenger and freight traffic it’s likely to generate, won’t result in future breaches of air quality legal limits.”


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