What is it?

The final report of the Airports Commission, set up in 2012 by the Coalition Government to examine the scale and timing of any requirement for additional hub capacity and identify and evaluate how any need for additional capacity should be met in the short, medium and long term.

When was it published?

1 July 2015

What did it recommend?

A new third runway at Heathrow to the north west of the current runways. This was the preferred option of Heathrow Airport. In addition, the report recommended:

  • a ban on all scheduled night flights in the period from 11.30pm to 6.00am;
  • no fourth runway at Heathrow;
  • a legally binding ‘noise envelope’ putting firm limits on the level of noise created by the airport;
  • a new aviation noise levy to fund an expanded programme of mitigation, including noise insulation for homes, schools and other community facilities;
  • a legal commitment on air quality that new capacity will only be released when it is clear that compliance with EU limits will not be delayed;
  • a Community Engagement Board, under an independent chair, with ‘real influence’ over spending on mitigation and compensation and over the airport’s operations;
  • an independent aviation noise authority, with a statutory right to be consulted on flightpaths and other operating procedures at all UK airports; and
  • provision of training opportunities and apprenticeships for local people, so that nearby communities benefit from the jobs and economic opportunities.

What happens now?

The onus would appear to be on the airport to put in a planning application. There is a special planning process for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) called a Development Consent Order (DCO). This roughly lasts about 18 months, at the end of which the Secretary of State for Transport (currently Patrick McLoughlin) would either say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

However, Heathrow has as yet given no indication of intention to do this. In its response to the report it said: “We will now work with Government to deliver [the third runway]”.

Furthermore, the report sets out an alternative route involving a Hybrid Bill (see below).

Is there a role for Parliament?

This is the question.

Before the final report was published the general assumption was that Heathrow would put in a planning application and it would proceed as described above. The reason for this assumption is that a third runway at Heathrow is a private development by a private company, paid for with private money.

There might also need to be Transport and Works Orders for surface transport (road and/or rail) improvements.

However, the report said that a DCO was not the only way forward, that a Hybrid Bill might be a viable alternative. It seems likely that this would only be the case if the airport development was parcelled together with, for example, surface transport schemes and possibly some of those other issues recommended in the report (see above).

The downsides of this approach are that it would be unusual for a Government to bring forward a public bill in support of a private scheme. A Hybrid Bill would also take a lot longer to pass – probably twice as long as a DCO. Finally there is the political aspect: a planning process would not require an authorising (and potentially difficult) vote in Parliament in the way that a Bill would.

More positively, a Bill would give the Government and Parliament more control over the process and the final configuration of the new runway. In a 2014 discussion paper the Commission explained:

In theory a hybrid bill would give more control to Government, and indeed Parliament, over the time-table for progressing through the planning process and the ultimate design of the scheme. A bill could be used to take wider and more significant powers to drive through delivery of the scheme than would be possible with a DCO, for example establishing a statutory authority or creating more flexibility to make changes to the design in later years. [para 2.24]

What is Gatwick likely to do now?

In its response to the final report, Gatwick Airport said that its proposal remains the “only deliverable option”. It said that although the report had opted for Heathrow the evidence it had taken showed that expansion at Gatwick is deliverable. It then called on the Government to choose Gatwick over Heathrow.

It did not indicate that Gatwick would put in its own planning application – though this is an option open to the airport.

Further reading

Airports Commission: Final Report, 1 July 2015

Parliamentary debate, 1 July 2015, cc1483-1503

Section 7 of HC Library briefing paper CBP7177, Transport 2015, May 2015

Airports Commission, Discussion Paper 07: Delivery of new runway capacity, July 2014

HC Library briefing paper SN1136, Aviation: London Heathrow Airport , January 2014

HC Library briefing paper SN2893, Aviation: airports in South East England, January 2014

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