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Analysis | Behind the Heathrow headlines

Heathrow r3 north west option cropped

Last week, the national media was buzzing with rumours about Labour’s lack of commitment to Heathrow expansion. Senior Labour sources told the Financial Times that MPs were “almost certain” to oppose the third runway in a Commons vote, now due in the first half of next year.

Air quality was cited as the main issue, which Labour outlined as a critical factor in its election manifesto. “If the vote is any time soon there is no way we would back it, mainly on the basis of air quality, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon,” one source told the paper.

A Labour spokesperson told New Civil Engineer that although airport expansion in the South East is “vital to Britain’s economic success”, proposals would have to meet stringent criteria on capacity, climate change, noise and air quality and wider national benefits before a Labour government would give the green light to a third runway at Heathrow. It is a far cry from the last Labour government’s more supportive position on Heathrow’s expansion plans.

Losing Labour’s backing could now put Heathrow’s expansion plans on thin ice – as Heathrow expansion programme director Phil Wilbraham told New Civil Engineer in April, a strong Conservative majority would have been the best outcome as it would have given a degree of certainty to the third runway. As it is, any refusal from Labour to back expansion coupled with vocal opposition within the ranks of the Tory party could prove fatal for the runway’s future.

Heathrow could have done without the latest backlash. Ex-British Airways boss Sir Rod Eddington is advising Arora Group tycoon Surinder Arora on rival – and £7bn cheaper – expansion plans. Produced by Bechtel, Arora’s alternative runway would be 500m shorter and shifted slightly to the east of the current arrangement, avoiding disruption on the M25.

Eddington took to the airwaves on 23 August to tell the BBC Today programme that airlines preferred the cheaper plans, as they could the need to raise landing charges. These have to stay close to current levels as part of a planning condition for the third runway.

“It’s pretty clear that you can actually deliver a third runway and additional terminal capacity in a way that’s fit for purpose, but costs substantially less than the £17.5bn being proposed by HAL [Heathrow Airport Ltd],” he said.

Heathrow has previously stressed that its proposals are supported by the government. But there are signs that some parts of the proposal could change. In its half-year trading update released in July, the airport omitted details of an additional terminal building, leading several media outlets to ask whether plans for the additional runway had been dropped to save costs.

“We have identified potential further savings through this work by looking at the location and configuration of the terminals along with different phasing options,” stated the airport.

“We will continue refining our plans and release various options at our first planning consultation later this year.”

But, a Heathrow spokesperson told New Civil Engineer that all expansion options are still on the table. Its own consultation with airlines and others with an interest in expansion will take place later this year: this is when details around the proposed third runway will be officially revealed.

Meanwhile, other UK airports are gearing up for big capacity upgrades. Manchester Airports Group is carrying out capacity upgrades at Manchester and Stanstead airports, while an £80M terminal extension has just begun at Edinburgh Airport.

And in the South East, Gatwick Airport is snapping at Heathrow’s heels. Earlier this month Gatwick appointed five firms to deliver its £1.15bn transformation programme involving a new domestic arrivals facility at its southern terminal. At the same time, Gatwick construction director Raymond Melee renewed the airport’s position as a Heathrow rival.

“Regarding future runway expansion, our financeable and deliverable scheme for a second runway remains on the table,” he said.

“We will deliver a new runway for Britain, in addition to, or instead of, Heathrow, should the government give us its support now or in the future.”

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