The third degree18 December 2018
In June, the UK Parliament approved plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport. Neil Thompson talks to Aviation Minister Baroness Elizabeth Sugg about the developments and controversies surrounding the expansion, and the potential risks and rewards that the future may hold.
After a long battle, the third runway was finally approved by parliament. What do you think the most compelling argument was on your side?
Baroness Elizabeth Sugg: I was delighted to see the NPS overwhelmingly approved by parliament, including by more than half of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It was the strength of the whole package that drove parliamentary support including up to £74-billion worth of benefits to passengers and the wider economy, better connections to growing world markets and more domestic connections to Heathrow from the nations and regions of the UK. Equally important was the strong package of mitigations for local communities including an expected new 6.5-hour ban on scheduled night flights and predictable periods of respite from aircraft, and a compensation package worth up to £2.6 billion covering noise insulation, property purchase and ongoing compensation.
What opposition argument did you have the most sympathy for?
The decision to expand Heathrow was taken in the national interest, but, of course, there are people who will be directly impacted if the scheme is delivered. To try and make it as easy as possible for these people, a package of compensation, worth up to £2.6 billion, has been announced to minimise the impacts. This includes a property purchase scheme, above even statutory levels, so that people who lose their homes or live close to the airport will receive 125% of the full market value of their property.
Noise insulation needs to be at a level that will really help to cut down aircraft noise and protect homes, in addition to covering schools and community buildings. Additionally, a community compensation fund to mitigate environmental impacts should be designed in consultation with local people, to give communities a real say over what would benefit them.
I see Rachel Cerfontyne, chair of the independent Heathrow Community Engagement Board, as key in making sure that people’s voices are heard, and would encourage anyone affected to get in touch with the board. It’s really important that people engage with Heathrow’s consultations, the first of which is focused on airspace changes and launches in January next year, followed by another in June that is focused on the master plan, which are the key opportunities to comment on their plans and make your views known.
Either way, the runway seems likely to be built. But concerns persist about its long-term viability, with one common criticism being that the airport is too expensive. What is the government doing to improve things?
Expansion of Heathrow would not be funded by taxpayers.
Passengers are at the heart of our transport system and we are determined to ensure that if expansion goes ahead, airport charges will be kept as close as possible to 2016 levels in real terms.
The CAA will scrutinise the cost of the scheme to ensure that it delivers an appropriate solution to the need for extra capacity that is in the best interest of consumers. The department will engage directly with Heathrow to test the affordability of its plans as they mature.
Another worry is that such a costly project at Heathrow will take money away from other areas of infrastructure – either other airports or the railways. Do you think the third runway is an ‘either/or’ when it comes to infrastructure investment?
The proposed plans for a new northwest runway at Heathrow will be paid for by the private sector and not taxpayers. Heathrow expansion would not take any government money away from other areas of investment.
Expansion at Heathrow is an opportunity to protect and strengthen the frequency of domestic routes and connections globally for other airports.
The types of connectivity that can be accessed from Heathrow Airport are, and will continue to be, important for the economic and social development of all nations and regions in the UK. Therefore, this expansion of domestic and global routes should benefit passengers and business across the UK, producing significant economic benefits for the country and laying the foundation for wider UK investment.
The elephant in the room in terms of all this is of course Brexit. Even the best deal has the UK economy lose a substantial chunk of its GDP. How much can a third runway really mitigate things given how wide-ranging the Brexit changes will be?
We are confident of getting a good deal. Aviation is crucial to the UK’s economy. UK aerospace is a high-growth, high-value sector driven by innovation and we are committed to securing the UK’s position as a world leader in a future global aviation market. Businesses and jobs will be at the forefront of our future economic partnership and we are committed to improving our productivity by embracing new technologies, investing in skills and infrastructure, and helping businesses create better, higher-paying jobs via our ambitious industrial strategy.
164 million passengers travelled between the UK and EU airports in 2017, and it would be in nobody’s interest to introduce obstacles to airlines, or to limit the choice of destinations that passengers enjoy today. Donald Tusk has said he is determined to avoid the “absurd” consequence of flights between the UK and EU being disrupted, showing there is clearly an appetite from all parties to reach an agreement.
We are working closely with the aviation industry, including Heathrow, to ensure they are prepared for our exit from the EU. One of the main arguments for supporting Heathrow is that it will help boost the UK’s global trade for decades to come and help maintain it in being at the heart of one of the largest aviation networks in the world.
More broadly, how important do you think a third runway is for any future trade agreements the UK might want to sign, particularly with increased competition from big airports on the continent?
As we prepare to leave the EU, Heathrow will play a critical role in connecting us to new and emerging markets like India, China and Brazil. It’s a huge global player, handling over £330 million worth of non-EU freight a day – from electrical components to medical supplies, which are shipped to destinations around the world. With expansion, Heathrow plans to nearly double its freight capacity. As we look to sign new trade agreements with our global partners, having a wellconnected and globally recognised hub airport like Heathrow will strengthen our hand in negotiations.
Given demand is rising all the time, can you envisage a world where Heathrow will have to build another runway in the future? If not, what do you see as the long-term infrastructure strategy for the UK?
The Airports National Policy Statement (NPS) is clear that a fourth runway at Heathrow would not be supported. The government has already announced that it is supportive of airports beyond Heathrow making best use of existing runways, with each proposal, including economic and environmental impacts and mitigations, judged on its merits by the relevant planning authority. We will shortly publish an aviation strategy green paper for consultation that will address long-term sustainable growth.
How do you balance all this with the environmental costs of a third runway, especially with the problems of climate change becoming ever-more apparent?
Decisions on airport capacity must balance local, environmental and social considerations against national and local benefits stemming from expansion. This is why the Airports NPS sets strict environmental requirements that any applicant will have to meet. For example, development consent will only be granted if the promoter can demonstrate that expansion would not affect the UK’s ability to comply with air quality obligations. Our assessment is that this is feasible, and that there is a range of mitigation measures that could be used to address the implications of poor air quality, including an emissionsbased access charge and public transport mode share targets. The government remains committed to meeting our climate change target of at least an 80% emissions reduction below 1990 levels by 2050 and ensuring that expansion is delivered in a way that is consistent with these goals. Importantly, the Airports NPS makes clear that if expansion would have an impact on the ability of government to meet carbon reduction targets, then this would be a reason to refuse development consent.