Organisations are “queuing up” to take legal action to block Heathrow expansion, an environmental group warned last week, as the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) identified a “breakdown in trust” between the industry, regulators and communities.
The warning came as aviation minister Robert Goodwill (pictured) defended the government’s delay in deciding where to build a new runway, despite an Airports Commission recommendation to expand Heathrow.
Goodwill told an Airport Operators Association dinner in London: “People were disappointed we delayed the decision, [but] we delayed so we can get the job finished. To risk failure now would be irresponsible.”
He insisted the government could still have a new runway operating by 2030. But that was disputed by Louise Ellman MP, who chairs the Commons Transport Select Committee. She told a Policy-UK conference on ‘A Way Forward for Air Travel’: “I’m cynical about the government achieving that deadline. There is a general assumption that when the government gives a decision, it’s a decision, but it’s not.”
A decision on a new runway will trigger a consultation process. Ellman said: “We’ve been told this could take a year. But knowing how consultations can be drawn out, I’m worried about the time. Then there will be a planning application – a whole other process.”
Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation – a non-governmental organisation (NGO) – said: “We welcome the delay. The Airports Commission identified environmental challenges and until the government has answered these, it should not go forward. If not there will be an inevitable legal fight.
“Would a new runway worsen air quality in an area that already exceeds pollution limits? The government needs to be confident it can meet the requirements.”
Johnson said: “The Airports Commission said air quality should not be a barrier to compliance. That seems the wrong way to talk about public health. I don’t know if it would be acceptable to the UK Supreme Court or the European Court of Justice. There are organisations queuing up to take legal action on air quality.”
He added: “We need to look again at the noise objectives. How do we balance economic benefits, noise and health problems? Airport operators can do everything they can to reduce [surface] emissions, but it’s probably insufficient. We can’t tackle this without a wider debate about cleaner transport.”
The policy director of the CAA, also called Tim Johnson, insisted: “There is a compelling case for a new runway, subject to addressing noise.” But he said: “There has been a lack of transparency and a breakdown in trust between the industry, regulator and communities.”
He added: “There is a case for modernising air space. [But] there are diametrically opposed interests. We’ve seen two judicial reviews on matters related to air space recently.”
However, Graham Stringer MP, vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Aviation, said Parliament is unlikely to cause any delay to the process. He told the conference: “There is an absolute majority in the Commons to increase capacity in the southeast.”
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