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Sir Howard Davies declared “the ball is now firmly in the government’s court” after the Airports Commission he chaired came down firmly in favour of Heathrow expansion last week.
But industry hopes of a speedy decision were dashed by former transport secretary Lord Adonis, who unpicked a pledge by prime minister David Cameron to make a decision before the end of the year.
Adonis told the Runways UK conference in London: “It’s important to bring a reality check to your expectations. This is the third official recommendation for a third Heathrow runway in the past 12 years. The question is whether it leads it to happen.
“It’s right to expand Heathrow, with the conditions Sir Howard set out. The only serious option on the table is Heathrow. Sir Howard has made it very difficult for any other proposal to proceed. But that does not mean it will happen.”
Adonis said the government had not taken a decisive lead, but had said “it would firmly and decisively read the report, and that would take many months”.
Repeating Cameron’s promise of a decision in the autumn, Adonis warned: “The ‘autumn’ is flexible. It could last to the end of the year, and the end of the year could last well into next year. It could last to the spring or after next year’s London mayoral election [in September].
“This is a difficult electoral issue. One-third of the cabinet is hostile [to Heathrow] and several extremely hostile.
“It’s not going to be easy for the government to take a firm and decisive lead before the mayoral election. It isn’t going to be a comfortable position for the government, with the most likely Conservative mayoral candidate, Zak Goldsmith, strongly against [Heathrow expansion]. The best they will get is a bitter division in public.”
In light of this division, Adonis said: “I would give equal weight to three options: a clear decision to proceed in the autumn; or some further process – they could easily spend the next few years looking at the options on noise; or the government could say it’s not satisfied the conditions set down have been satisfied.”
He added: “There are a huge number of issues you could create a further process about.
“A lot depends on David Cameron’s sense of the politics. Given an EU referendum, the mayoral election, £12 billion in welfare cuts, a divided Cabinet and a new Labour leader, he has to decide whether to expend political capital on Heathrow.”
Sir Howard told the conference: “The commission came out clearly in favour of [a new] Heathrow northwest runway. We set out a package of environmental conditions, suggesting a ban on night flights, a new noise levy, a new noise authority, a new community-engagement board modelled on Schiphol, and [said] the government should commit to no fourth runway.
“We don’t believe a fourth runway would be possible on environmental or noise grounds.”
Sir Howard warned: “The stakes are high. Not to make a decision would be a mistake and it would become more and more difficult over time to explain why people should invest in London or study in London.”
However, he dismissed demands to “just get on with it”, saying: “I don’t believe you can ride roughshod over the planning process and communities.”
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