What’s happening with Heathrow Airport’s third runway project?

Feb 11, 2023

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Officials at London Heathrow Airport (LHR) are on the cusp of announcing plans for a third runway despite fierce political debate about the proposed extension.

Expected to be revealed in the next few months, the contentious proposal, a £14 billion expansion to the U.K.’s largest (and Europe’s busiest) airport, looks set to take the shape of a third runway via a bridge over the M25, extensions to Terminals 2 and 5, and a giant car park — which would involve rerouting roads, diverting rivers and demolishing an entire village. If all went ahead, it would mean Heathrow could deliver up to 740,000 flights per year.

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So, what’s the latest on Heathrow’s third runway? Why the pushback? And what’s happened so far?

Let’s take a look back…

In This Post

What is the history of the third runway project?

Talk of a third runway has been rattling on since 2006, with the 2009 Labour government supporting expansion plans, before 2010’s Coalition government cancelled them. Famously, in 2015, future prime minister Boris Johnson declared as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip: “I will lie down in front of those bulldozers and stop construction of that third runway.”

But political opinion changed once again when back in February 2017, the Conservative government released the Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS), setting out the plans for a new, north-west runway at Heathrow — and undertook consultations with the public.

MPs backed ANPS in June 2018, under Prime Minister Theresa May, by 415 votes to 119 (so, with 296 majority).

Legal challenges sprung up in March 2019, from various parties, including the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, local councils Hillingdon, Wandsworth, Richmond-upon-Thames, Hammersmith and Fulham and Windsor and Maidenhead, plus numerous environmental groups such as Greenpeace. In May, the High Court found in favour of the expansion, but the parties sought to appeal.

That June, a ‘masterplan’ for the expansion was published, aiming for a third runway by 2026 and the full expansion by 2050. One month later, Mr Johnson, then PM, referenced his previous comments opposing a third runway, saying during Prime Minister’s Questions: “Of course, the bulldozers are some way off, but I’m following with lively interest the court cases.”

Related: 6 challenges facing the UK’s new minister of transport – and how she might tackle them

In February 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that plans for the third runway were ‘illegal’, citing that they went against the government’s climate change policy and commitment to the Paris Agreement — Heathrow appealed that decision and in December 2020 the Supreme Court overturned the ruling. The airport said that the judgement “makes clear that up-to-date climate obligations will be considered as part of the robust planning process that would apply to any proposals for Heathrow expansion”.

This final judgement means Heathrow can apply for planning permission — a lengthy process which has yet to begin. Plans will still be subject to a public inquiry, according to the BBC, plus the airport will need to secure a Development Consent Order (DCO) and further government approval before going ahead.

The expected 2026 deadline has since been pushed back, too, with Heathrow saying in 2020 that its construction wouldn’t begin until 2030, at the earliest.

Why has the third runway been delayed?

The various legal battles, the time it takes to apply for planning permission, and the aviation industry facing monumental challenges in 2020 and 2021 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, may all be factors in the delay.

Following the December 2020 Supreme Court ruling, Heathrow added in its FAQs: “Following the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to legally re-instate the [ANPS] as government policy, Heathrow is now reflecting on the judgment to work out our next steps… Our priority remains focusing on securing a recovery for the airport from Covid-19.”

What’s the latest on Heathrow’s third runway?

Heathrow’s outgoing CEO John Holland-Kaye has been coy to address the exact plans for a third runway this year but has remained insistent that increasing the U.K’s biggest airport’s air traffic capability is needed:

“We need a hub airport in the UK that is bigger than Heathrow [at present]. It’s critical for the UK that we have an expanded Heathrow,” he told attendees at the AOA conference at the end of last month.

Holland-Kaye declined to give a timeframe for expansion but said: “We’ll have more to say on that later this year”, which now appears to be sooner rather than later.

There’s certainly been no shortage of support for a third runway from the U.K. government of late.

Back in October 2022, then-Prime Minister Liz Truss gave her backing to the plans, as did her Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who said she too was a “supporter” of the expansion while speaking at a Conservative Party conference event, adding: “Aviation is an important part of our growth.”

Ms Trevelyan reportedly referenced an expansion at Newcastle Airport, which she said benefited residents in her constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Following Ms Truss’ hasty departure and the ensuing collapse of her cabinet, Mark Harper became the latest transport secretary. This is especially notable because the MP for Forest of Dean has been a long-time advocate for a third runway at Heathrow, writing on his website in 2016 that it would “better connect people and businesses to new long haul destinations and growing world markets.”

He also referred to the expansion of Heathrow as “much better for the South West than an extra runway at Gatwick.”

While he’s not been particularly vocal about the controversial third runway since taking control of No.10, current PM Rishi Sunak voted in favour of Heathrow expansion in 2018, alongside 414 other ministers.

However, one stumbling block for Heathrow officials looks likely to be with Labour, which has said that if any runway extensions were to happen, they would much prefer it at a regional airport which could help boost regional connectivity.

With the Conservatives down in the polls, any ensuing general election which sees a Labour win could well have an impact on plans to go ahead with the runway.

Speaking at the recent Airport Operators Association (AOA) conference, Labour’s shadow transport minister Mike Kane has also said: “[Heathrow] probably have enough runway capacity as it is. What we have to do is connect it up.”

When pressed on whether the party would support Heathrow, he added: “Not at the moment, no. We are committed to our four tests and need to see the spending restraints. Will a third runway be environmentally viable? Will it be economically viable?”

This four tests probe…

  • That increased capacity will be delivered.
  • That we can meet our CO2 reduction commitments
  • Minimise noise and local environmental impact
  • Benefits of expansion felt across the regions of the U.K., not just the South East and London

In response to this pushback, John Holland-Kaye said he was still confident they will pass the test: “We have to meet the four tests Labour has set out, which we will.”

Time will tell whether these four questions will be answered as part of the forthcoming plans. But we’ll bring you more updates when we have them.

Related: London City Airport begins major terminal refurbishment to improve the passenger experience

Why has the third runway been so controversial?

Heathrow says on its website that the expansion would create “tens of thousands of jobs and billions in economic benefits to the U.K.” — something also echoed by the government — but those opposing the plans cite climate change concerns and major disruption for local residents.

On climate change, environmental groups have slammed the idea of a third runway – as the increase in flights, an expected 700 extra per day, would mean an increase in carbon emissions. Heathrow has previously been cited as the U.K.’s biggest single source of carbon emissions.

The airport says in its FAQs: “We remain committed to developing Heathrow responsibly and sustainably, with a focus on the wellbeing of our communities and the environment. Heathrow has already committed to being carbon net zero by 2050…”

And for its part, the government wrote in a 2016 doc that it “believes that with a range of policy measures and environmental mitigations, expansion at Heathrow can be delivered within legal air quality requirements”.

But in a 2019 op-ed for The Guardian, Brighton Pavilion MP and former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas argued that the expansion made a “mockery” of the U.K.’s (legal) net zero targets for 2050.

Environmental campaigners Greenpeace also argued in a 2020 blog: ‘If the government were treating the climate crisis with the seriousness it deserves, it would abandon airport expansion completely. Instead, it should direct its time and effort towards expanding and electrifying public transport across the U.K. It should also make frequent flyers pay more for their flights to reduce demand.’

Those 700 extra flights per day from Heathrow would also lead to an increase in noise pollution for people living below the flight path — as an analysis done in 2018 showed that 2.2 million people would have to live with higher levels of noise as a result of the expansion.

Additionally, the entire village of Longford would need to be destroyed for the planned construction to take place, with 761 homes total in the area needing to be demolished — though Heathrow has said it will offer market value plus 25% for any houses in compulsory areas and some surrounding ones.

A number of campaign groups, including the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN) and resident-led Stop Heathrow Expansion (SHE), have been arguing the case against expansion for years now, with the latter saying it wants “a better quality of life for all residents to be free from the threat of their homes being demolished or pollution harming their children”.

Related: Heathrow Airport now fears it won’t have enough passengers through its terminals

Additional reporting by Joe Ellison.

Featured image by Grimshaw Architects.

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