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Heathrow wins the latest battle but the war continues

05 June 2018 Ben Vogel

Controversial plans for a third runway at the UK’s Heathrow Airport have been approved by government ministers, with MPs now due to vote on the expansion plans by July 11.

While airport industry insiders and many in the UK business community will welcome this latest step towards a third runway at Heathrow, they would be wise to temper their optimism.

The UK government set up an Airports Commission in 2012 to explore and recommend options for capacity expansion. Three years of deliberation and occasionally rancorous debate followed, after which the Commission concluded in July 2015 that a third runway at Heathrow was the best option - but even this recommendation was conditional on the introduction of numerous environmental safeguards.

Despite optimism that a vote on expansion would be held soon after the July 2015 announcement, it has consistently been delayed and kicked into the long grass, primarily due to Brexit but also because the issue is so sensitive for a government that cannot be sure it will win a vote.

This is because a number of Conservative MPs - for example, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - vehemently oppose a third runway for Heathrow. While Johnson may be persuaded to avoid the vote or abstain, to maintain a semblance of harmony with his fellow Cabinet members, there are many others with fuller freedom of action.

Prime Minister Theresa May was always going to need support from the Democratic Unionist Party to avoid an embarrassing defeat, and the government may even try to attract pro-Heathrow expansion MPs from the opposition Labour Party. Labour officially supports a third runway with several environmental caveats - but the chance to inflict more damage on an already fragile government could be too attractive to miss.

Expansion supporters have consistently insisted that there is no excuse for further prevarication, because the UK aviation sector and the broader UK economy pays a heavy price for delay. They argue that Amsterdam Schiphol, Frankfurt, and Paris Charles de Gaulle - the three main continental rivals to Heathrow - are able to grow economically lucrative connections while Heathrow stagnates because it lacks capacity.

Post-Brexit, they add, it is more important than ever to connect London to the global economy - unless Heathrow expands, by 2030 the UK capital will lack connections to 194 of the 309 cities worldwide with populations of more than 2 million.

These arguments could swing the upcoming vote - but even after that, detailed planning permission must be approved; given the entrenched position of environmentalists, anti-Heathrow expansion politicians and local residents concerned about noise pollution and other aspects associated with growth at the UK hub, the road to the third runway will still be rocky.

Heathrow has won this battle, but the war will go on.

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