UK’s third runway battle goes into extra time over air quality concerns

The threat of legal challenges over air quality has prompted authorities to call for yet more consultation over a controversial extra runway for London. 

The three-year long review by the UK Airport Commission into whether to build a third runway at Heathrow or a second at Gatwick was to have ended this month.  

But Sir Howard Davies, the chairman of the commission, has decided to launch a fresh public consultation into the impact of expansion on air quality in the south-east of England. 

The decision is a response to a ruling by the UK Supreme Court last month that the government must make air pollution a greater priority.  

At the end of April the supreme court ordered the government to tackle the problem after a legal challenge by environmental NGO, ClientEarth.  

London has failed to meet EU standards on nitrogen dioxide levels since 2010. 

Davies is understood to be concerned that any plan to build a third runway could be vulnerable to a legal challenge based on the supreme court ruling.  

A previous decision to allow a third runway at Heathrow was overturned by the courts in 2010 on environmental grounds. Gatwick has always claimed that expansion at Heathrow could again be challenged legally. 

In that case, a group of councils, residents and environmental pressure groups overturned the government’s plan on the grounds that it was at odds with its climate change targets. On that occasion, the high court ruled that the public consultation process used was invalid as it was based on out-of-date figures. 

The news of the additional consultation will be unwelcome to Heathrow and Gatwick, both of which are lobbying for permission to build another runway.  

Heathrow argues that it is running at 98% capacity, and that expansion would lead to the creation of up to 16,100 extra jobs and $20bn in economic benefits.  

Meanwhile the Gatwick Obviously campaign claims that a runway there would generate $140bn in economic growth and cost £7.8bn compared with Heathrow’s £15.6bn. 

According to the Financial Times, the consultation will be technical, and will not hear evidence from the general public. The commission is hoping to deliver a report by the end of June, although people close to the process suggested this could be difficult. 

Both Heathrow and Gatwick are now entirely owned by overseas groups. 

Heathrow is owned by the FGP TopCo consortium, made up of Ferrovial (25%), Qatar Holdings (20%), Caisse de Dépôt et Placement du Québec (13%), the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (11%), Alinda Capital Partners (11%), China Investment Corporation (10%) and Universities Superannuation Scheme (10%). 

Gatwick is owned by Ivy Holdco, a consortium made up of US private equity firm Global Infrastructure Partners (42%), Australian sovereign wealth Future Fund (17%), the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (16%), the Californian Public Employees Retirement System (13%) and the National Pension Service of Korea (12%). 

Photograph: Protesters against Heathrow expansion gather in the airport’s Terminal 5 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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