The Airports Commission delivered its final report and recommendation on 1 July 2015 (Report). The Commission recommendation is for a new third runway at Heathrow to the north west of the current runways.

The Report states that expanding Heathrow provides a unique opportunity to change the way the airport operates. It states that the airport should be obliged to develop a better and more collaborative relationship with its local communities. It therefore recommends that a number of measures should be taken forward, in parallel with the approval, construction and operation of any new capacity at Heathrow, to address its impacts on the local environment and communities:

  • following construction of a third runway a ban on all scheduled night flights in the period from 11.30pm to 6.00am (only possible with expansion);
  • no fourth runway at Heathrow;
  • a legally binding ‘noise envelope’ putting firm limits on the level of noise created by the airport;
  • a new aviation noise charge or levy to fund an expanded programme of mitigation, including noise insulation for homes, schools and other community facilities;
  • a legal commitment on air quality that new capacity will only be released when it is clear that compliance with EU limits will not be delayed;
  • a Community Engagement Board, under an independent chair, with ‘real influence’ over spending on mitigation and compensation, and over the airport’s operations;
  • an independent aviation noise authority, with a statutory right to be consulted on flight paths and other operating procedures at all UK airports; 
  • provision of training opportunities and apprenticeships for local people, so that nearby communities benefit from the jobs and economic opportunities;
  • compensation at full market value plus 25% and reasonable costs for those who would lose their homes; and
  • a major shift to increase the public transport mode share; the Report suggests potential being 60% or higher.

Debate in Parliament on 1 July 2015

After the final Report was delivered a parliamentary debate took place. The Prime Minister made it clear that the Government would study the Report before responding, but that a decision would be made before the end of the year:

"I am very clear about the legal position; if we say anything now before studying the Report, we could actually endanger whatever decision is made. The guarantee that I can give the right hon. and learned Lady is that a decision will be made by the end of the year."

The Secretary of State for Transport Mr Patrick McLoughlin made it clear that there are a number of things that the Government must do now in order to make progress:

"First, we must study the substantial and innovative evidence base that the commission has produced. Secondly, we must decide on the best way of achieving planning consents quickly and fairly if expansion is to go ahead. Thirdly, we will come back to Parliament in the autumn to provide a clear direction on the Government’s plans."

What does the Report say about consenting?

The Report finds that there are two main routes for seeking planning consent, either through a National Policy Statement (NPS) and Development Consent Order (DCO), or through a Hybrid Bill. The Report states that the decision on the process for consent should form part of a wider discussion between the airport and the Government on how to take the scheme forward. The Report does not make a firm recommendation for one or other of the routes, but instead refers to a number of the pros and cons of the different routes.

NSIP/ DCO route

This route would provide the greatest control over how and when to bring forward a scheme in the hands of the airport operator. The Report notes that while an NPS is not required for a DCO to be granted, in practice it is very unlikely that any airport scheme promoter will submit a planning application without a clear statement from Government on the need for additional runway capacity. However the Report states that there would be no procedural impediment to scheme development being advanced in parallel with the Government’s own work on a NPS, where a scheme promoter may be willing to do work ahead of the publication of an NPS, bringing forward the completion date. The Report notes that a planning process would not require an authorising (and potentially difficult) vote in Parliament in the way that a Bill would.

Hybrid Bill route

As promoter of a Hybrid Bill the Government would have to choose an option. Under a Hybrid Bill, Parliament is responsible for debating and agreeing the principle of the Bill (the need for such a scheme) as well as agreeing and consenting the detailed design of the scheme. The Report notes that this route would enable Government to take more wide-ranging powers to coordinate and ensure that different elements such as road and rail links and compensation and mitigation schemes come together to deliver new capacity most effectively.

The Report notes that a Hybrid Bill would take longer to pass than a DCO as the Parliamentary calendar for a Hybrid Bill is harder to predict. But the Report notes that a Hybrid Bill's potential, particularly once past second reading, to carry over between parliaments may provide more certainty in the longer term.

The Commission notes recent Government work to reduce the time taken by the judicial review process, including the introduction of specialist planning courts and states that given the sovereignty of Parliament, a Hybrid Bill, particularly once granted Royal Assent, would not be subject to legal challenge to the same degree.

'Paving Bill'

The Report states that the Government could also deposit a ‘Paving Bill’ or table a motion in Parliament to set out its early commitment to progressing the Commission’s recommendations and delivering policies that would support regional and community interests in the event of expansion, including a commitment to establish a Community Engagement Board and an independent aviation noise authority and to amend its guidance on Public Service Obligations (PSOs) in order to secure valuable regional connectivity. The Report states that the frameworks and funding models for taking forward these policies will need to be established through a separate Programme Bill, which could be taken through in parallel to the planning consent process.

Reaction to the Report

The Report notes that Heathrow Airport prefers the NSIP/DCO route, but it has not recommended one consenting route over the other. In response to the report Heathrow has said that The Commission has backed a positive and ambitious vision for Britain. "We will now work with Government to deliver it.”

In its response to the final report, Gatwick Airport states that it is confident that its proposal is “the only deliverable option”. Referring in particular to the Commission's wider recommendation that "additional operations at an expanded Heathrow must be contingent on acceptable performance on air quality."

What's next

Chancellor George Osborne is due to deliver his budget on Wednesday 8 July 2015, which is likely to be too early for a decision given the very clear statements form the Prime Minister that the Government would now have to consider the Commission's Report before returning to Parliament in the Autumn.

Read more on the Airport Commission Final Report.