Airports Commission urges Heathrow air quality commitment

A third runway should be built at Heathrow, but only if there is a binding air quality commitment that compliance with EU limits will not be delayed, the Airports Commission said today.

Heathrow planes

The Airports Commission prefers adding a third runway to the northwest side of Heathrow

The call for a commitment on air quality comes in the long-awaited 342-page report issued today (July 1). In the report, the Commission unanimously concluded that the option to build a third runway at Heathrow “presents the strongest case” for increasing the UK’s airport capacity “and offers the greatest strategic and economic benefits”.

It said that expanding Heathrow would also generate up to £147 billion in GDP impacts over 60 years, provide around 40 new destinations from the airport and more than 70,000 new jobs by 2050.

However, the Commission — led by Sir Howard Davies — stressed that any such expansion should be combined with a “significant package of measures to address its environmental and community impacts”.

Without appropriate air quality mitigation in place, the report states that both Heathrow expansion schemes which have been considered “would delay compliance with the Directive and hence would not be deliverable within the legal framework”.

The report adds that it would accordingly need to be demonstrated that by 2030, air monitoring receptors in the vicinity of the expanded airport site will “not report the highest concentrations of NO2” in the London sector.

Currently, the highest levels of NO2 in London are on the Marylebone Road, which is the receptor used to report air quality levels for the Greater London area to the EU.

The Commission concludes, though, that “although expansion results in increases in emissions these levels are small when viewed in the national context”.

Commenting on the Commission’s recommendations, Sir Howard Davies said: “At the end of this extensive work programme our conclusions are clear and unanimous: the best answer is to expand Heathrow’s capacity through a new northwest runway.”

He also urged the government not to delay making a final decision as this would be “increasingly costly and will be seen, nationally and internationally, as a sign that the UK is unwilling or unable to take the steps needed to maintain its position as a well-connected, open trading economy in the twenty-first century”.

Today's report includes this table of the NO2 impacts of the three schemes

Today’s report includes this table of the NO2 impacts of the three schemes


Set up in 2012, the Commission looked at three schemes for UK airport capacity expansion: a third runway at Heathrow; extending the existing northern runway at Heathrow; and building a second runway at Gatwick Airport in Sussex.

Today’s report describes each option as “credible”, adding that “none of the schemes would lead to an exceedance of air quality objectives at any receptor relevant to human health in 2030”.

Gatwick Airport has previously criticised both the Heathrow expansion schemes for their perceived impact on air quality, while claiming that its own expansion scheme would have no impact on the UK’s ability to meet EU legal air pollution limits (see story).

Today’s report also states that the Gatwick second runway scheme is “not forecast to cause any exceedences of legal limits by 2030”.

But, according to the Commission’s report, while the Gatwick scheme is “feasible”, the additional capacity from this scheme would be more focussed on short-haul intra-European routes and the economic benefits would be “considerably smaller”.

It also states that advice from Natural England has indicated that ecological sites around Gatwick are “more likely to be sensitive to changes in air quality than the sites around Heathrow”.

Meanwhile, the report does concede that extending the Heathrow northern runway would deliver similar economic benefits to the preferred third runway option, in addition to being less costly and require the loss of fewer homes.

However, it believes that extending the northern runway at Heathrow provides a smaller increase in capacity and is “less attractive from a noise and air quality perspective”.


In order to mitigate the noise impacts from a third Heathrow runway, the report recommends a ban on all scheduled night flights between 11.30pm to 6am at Heathrow, which is “only possible with expansion”.

In addition, it calls for a legally binding ‘noise envelope’ to put limits on the level of noise created by the airport, as well as a new aviation noise levy to fund an expanded programme of mitigation, including noise insulation for homes, schools and other community facilities.

An independent aviation noise authority should also be formed, the report suggests, which would have a statutory right to be consulted on flightpaths and other operating procedures at all UK airports.

The Commission concluded that expanding Heathrow with the above measures in place will “not increase noise above current levels”.

Government decision

The government is not expected to formally respond to the Commission’s recommendation until autumn 2015.


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Roland Gilmore
Roland Gilmore
9 years ago

There are so many flaws in this report and recommendation that it is inevitable the government will lose a legal challenge should they designate Heathrow expansion as Infrastructure of National Importance and we stay within the EU under EU law.

Furthermore; as we know from the Thames Tideway Tunnel consultation fiasco, the Independent Planning Commission is rigged to dismiss consideration of anything other than the government’s choice and is therefore a meaningless process.

The notion that introducing a tax on vehicles using the M4/A4 and other roads (the proposed LEZ) will result in a reduction in emissions despite increased surface traffic generated by expansion is fanciful. Costs and effects have not been properly studied.

Troubling, is the reported conflict of interest of the commission chairman because of his appointment with RBS who stand to benefit from his recommendation. This has yet to be properly investigated.

The UK’s largest hub airport has been expanded by default over decades and is demonstrably in the wrong place. There are seven estuary airport proposals that have not been properly assessed by this report which focussed on only one of them and the commission admit they have not properly costed any of these.

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