The government has so far failed to prove it can mitigate the environmental impact of Heathrow’s controversial third runway, according to a leading group of MPs.
In a report published today, the environmental audit committee said ministers must show how the new runway can be built without exceeding air pollution regulations, noise levels or breaking carbon budgets.
It also warned the government had given no guarantee that air quality targets will be maintained after the UK leaves the EU, and called on Whitehall to draw up a new air quality strategy to help protect residents from the environmental impacts of expanding the London airport.
MPs questioned claims a third runway at Heathrow will result in ‘no more cars on the road’, and called for more clarity about how this will actually be delivered and monitored.
The committee also queried plans put out to public consultation earlier this month by the Department for Transport, around attempts to limit noise and flights at night.
‘Significant policy gap’
According to the committee’s report, the proposed measures around mitigating any additional noise ‘lack ambition’ and there is ‘no precision’ around the timing of the night flight ban, with ‘little evidence’ it will offer a ‘predictable respite’ for those living nearby.
In addition, report points out the government is relying on people switching to cleaner cars to reduce air pollution and adds there is no confidence that the government will meet its targets for uptake.
The report also talks of a ‘significant policy gap’ between the work done by the Airports Commission on emissions caused through aviation and advice given out by the Committee on Climate Change.
‘Worryingly, the government looks set to water down the limits on aviation emissions, recommended by its own climate change advisors,’ said committee chair, Mary Creagh.
‘That would mean other sectors of the economy, like energy and industry, having to cut their carbon emissions even deeper and faster.
‘Mitigating the air quality, carbon and noise impacts of a new runway cannot be an afterthought,’ added Ms Creagh.
‘Ministers must work harder to show that Heathrow expansions can be done within the UK’s legally-binding environmental commitments.’
In October last year, Greenpeace joined forces with four local authorities – Hillingdon, Richmond, Wandsworth and Windsor & Maidenhead to launch a bid to stop a third runway in the High Court.
They launched the legal fight on the basis that a third runway would be unlawful due to ‘unrivaled environmental impacts’, including illegal levels of air pollution and stretching the local transport network beyond breaking point.
But their case was thrown out in January, when High Court judges ruled they had no jurisdiction until the government publishes and adopts its national policy statement on aviation.
Responding to the new report, Greenpeace’s UK executive director John Sauven commented: ‘There‘s a litany of questions about the environmental impacts of a third runway that the government has been fudging.
‘MPs are absolutely right to demand clear answers. Ministers have produced no evidence that Heathrow expansion is compatible with bringing down illegal levels of air pollution or meeting our climate targets.
‘And there’s still no clarity on who will be paying for the billions of pounds of upgrades needed to link the airport with the rest of the UK transport network. If government policy won’t square these circles, it’s possible the courts will force them to.’
The chair of the local group HACAN, which has been campaigning against expansion at Heathrow, John Stewart, said: ‘The committee is saying in no uncertain terms that both the government and Heathrow Airport have got to up their game big-time if they have any chance of getting a third runway.
‘They have got to prove they can deliver on noise, climate and air pollution, not just say they can.’
Consultation ‘incomplete and unbalanced’
In light of the new report, the four councils involved with the Greenpeace action have called on the government to abandon their plans to expand Heathrow.
‘We’ve told the government time and time again that a new runway at Heathrow will make already illegal air pollution levels around the airport worse, and cause damage to the environment and to the wellbeing of people,’ said Hillingdon Council leader, Cllr Ray Puddifoot.
‘This latest report proves that the government has been misleading the public and highlights the negative impact that expansion of Heathrow will have on the environment, yet still the government refuses to accept that it is breaking the law on the very important issue of air quality and pollution.
‘The current consultation by the Department for Transport is incomplete and unbalanced, and doesn’t even mention the fact that Heathrow already contributes to illegal levels of air pollution which would increase with expansion. We will continue to represent our residents’ views and to challenge any proposal that has such a detrimental effect on their health and wellbeing,’ added Cllr Puddifoot.
The leader of Richmond Council, Lord True, added the report is ‘more evidence that expanding Heathrow is not feasible’ and the government ‘should give up now’.
‘Heathrow already contributes to illegal pollution levels. And, the government has no realistic plan to combat this,’ added Lord True. ‘Expanding Heathrow would not only be damaging to the environment, but it would damage the health of tens of thousands of Londoners.’
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: ‘We take our air quality commitments extremely seriously and have been very clear that the new runway will not get the go-ahead unless air quality requirements can be met.
‘Our draft airports national policy statement sets out a world-class package of compensation and mitigation measures to support local communities and limit the environmental impact of airport expansion. We are currently carrying out a full consultation, and want to hear everyone’s views.’
Photo by PhillipC