FEATURE: Will Heathrow expansion ever be cleared for take off?

Ever since the first passengers departed from the newly created Heathrow Airport in 1946, the debate over its expansion has rumbled on. One year on since the Airports Commission recommended a third runway, concerns remain over country’s most significant infrastructure project. Express news editor Paul Miles spoke with external affairs director at the airport, Nigel Milton, to discuss the expansion plans and whether he believes they will ever be cleared for take off.

Paul Miles

It was David Cameron who famously proclaimed: “The third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts.” 

The fresh faced soon-to-be Prime Minister made no secret of his views on Heathrow with the coalition scrapping plans for a third runway at the airport when it came to power in 2010.   

Fast forward six years and a very public change of mind from the former Prime Minister, the country is now waiting to see where a new government stands on the third runway.

Sat opposite me in the departures lounge of Terminal Five, overlooking one of the airports two runways, Nigel Milton seems unfazed about the latest expansion setback and the fact the decision will now be taken by an entirely new government.

When put to him that the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, said in 2009: ‘We need a better Heathrow, not a bigger Heathrow,” he is quick to point out the Maidenhead MP was talking about a very different expansion proposal compared to the one now backed by the Airports Commission.

“It is bigger and better now and therefore since that proposal has been on the table, she has been a very careful not to say anything,” he said.

“She has gone on record to say that she will take decisions based on facts and evidence and as Home Secretary she would have been aware of the Airports Commission.

“We have had meetings with her as a constituency MP to discuss the impact of the airport on her constituency. Heathrow has a lot of supporters in the area, not least the Maidenhead Chamber of Commerce which has been very supportive in public of Heathrow and we have individual residents who are supportive, the same as we have residents who oppose.

“When we met with her she was very careful to talk about Heathrow’s current operations and she was very interested to talk about our plans in a two runway scenario and how we plan to get quieter due to the impact of the airport while providing the jobs and opportunities for people based in Maidenhead, so she was very engaged in that conversation but she was very careful not to say anything about expansion.

“What the previous government didn’t have that Theresa May does have is that it wasn’t until May that we announced we would accept all of the Airport Commissions conditions.

“Now that we have done that the government is faced with a report which says yes we should go ahead [with expansion] but we think these 11 things should happen and they got a response saying we agree.

“If they are going to make the decision based on evidence and the facts then I would hope and I would expect them to be highly influenced by that report.”

A change in leadership is not all that has changed over the past couple of months with the Brexit vote now changing the future of the UK and also being the reason a decision on a third runway was stalled until autumn.

Speaking about the Brexit issue, Nigel adds: “I think that there are certain things the government will need and one of them is investment in production by the private sector. What we are talking about here is a £16bn private sector investment.”

It is here he points out to the runway to a transport wagon loading items onto an aeroplane being prepared for departure.

“As well as the passengers going onto the planes, every plane that leaves Heathrow has cargo on board and 26 per cent of all the UK’s exports and imports go through Heathrow so we are more then Felixstow or Southampton [docks] put together.”

“Heathrow is the long haul airport for the country. What Gatwick are putting forward, what Stansted does, what Luton does , they all do kind of short haul travel and they do it very well.

“In the post Brexit world the airport you want to see grow is the one that does trade with the wider world and that is not Gatwick, that is Heathrow.

“Heathrow is a global brand and what better way to show the world that the UK is open for business, that the UK is a welcoming and a confident country that wants to trade with the rest of the world than expanding its most popular and most well known gateway.”

Despite the Airports Commission ruling in favour of Heathrow’s plans to build a third runway northwest of the airport, the Royal Borough was one of four Conservative councils who announced earlier this year it is preparing to sue the government over the proposal.

“It’s 17 less local authorities than it was six years ago so that shows you how much progress we have made and they are the elected representatives and they have to do what they think is best for their residents,” says Nigel.

“All four of those authorities have had long held views opposing Heathrow expansion. I can see how they believe they have got to hold that position until they have exhausted all their avenues available but what I am hoping is that once that’s finished and if the third runway is going ahead, I hope all four of those authorities will constructively come round the table to help us deliver the best expansion we can.”

Heathrow expansion would enable the airport to provide up to 740,000 flights a year - enough to compete on an equal footing with Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam.

But the move continues to garner controversy with noise and pollution problems persistently plaguing the proposal.

Despite this, Nigel feels the airport has now been able to find a balance - believing it can deliver lower noise and pollution levels while delivering benefits to neighbouring communities.

“It’s always been more difficult in the past, because  in the past you have had to choose between national benefits and local negatives and that’s why we were under so much pressure form the Airports Commission and others four or fives year ago to come up with a plan that meant it was not a choice anymore,” he says.

 “That’s what is different this time around, we are not asking people to choose between the economy and the environment.

“What we are saying is that Heathrow expansion can deliver both and that has changed the debate and that has meant we have being able to win far more support.”

He is also keen to put across the message that Heathrow has not always got it right with the public, freely admitting a ‘trust deficit’ has developed between the airport and its neighbours – something which he is keen to put right.

“We are so confident in our plans we are willing to be held to account but we also understand that given the force of commitments and promises that have been made in the past that there is what I think we call a trust deficit,” he said.

“We are not making wild commitments anymore or commitments for the future, we were asked for a long time and are being asked now to rule out a fourth  runway and what John Holland-Kaye (Heathrow Chief Executive) has said was what’s the point me ruling out a fourth runway because I could be replaced as chief executive but what I will say is that if our government introduce an act of parliament to rule out a fourth runway I will support that because ultimately that’s the only thing that can stop it.

“We will make the commitments we can keep to and we will be held to account on them but it requires the government to set some tough regulatory framework to keep us to that.

“If the government decided to build a third runway it needs to set up a framework, a governance regime which Windsor and Maidenhead need to be involved in, Slough needs to be involved, both our supporters and opposers need to be involved in to hold us to account.

“It needs to have teeth to be able to penalise us and require us to take action - at the moment that isn’t the case.”

Asked about whether he feels confident Heathrow will be the choice of the future he adds: “We have always been confident. The Airports Commission gave us the confidence we have got a really well thought through plan to deliver economic benefits and to improve the quality of life around the airport but ultimately it’s always been a political decision and are we in a stronger position now, arguably we are because we no longer have a Prime Minister that’s made a public commitment, no if no buts, no third runway.

“We now have a Prime Minister who has said she will consider the evidence and facts to make the decision, we have a Secretary of State of Transport that has said he wants to take an urgent, rapid decision based on the facts so I think we have demonstrated we have a clear parliamentary majority in support of Heathrow expansion across parties.

“There is going to be no trouble with the parliamentary voters, it’s just a question now of whether the Prime Minister, when she looks at the evidence and the facts, thinks that Heathrow is the right choice.

“Participate in the debate; hold us to account on those commitments we have made and work with us to ensure Heathrow becomes a better neighbour.”

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