On 10 December the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Secretary of State for Transport published a 'news story'. With this it was confirmed that the government has accepted the case for airport expansion in the South-East.

It could hardly be characterised as 'scoop' – more of a 'non story'. As well as the need case, the statement said that the government had accepted the Airports Commission’s shortlist of options for expansion. However, a decision on which option to pursue has been delayed until, at least, summer 2016. Instead, a package of further work in a number of areas will be undertaken, and the "government expects the airports to put forward ambitious solutions.", to address the potential impacts identified by the Airports Commission.  Clearly, the government is looking to the airports' involvement with the further work.  

Notably, the government indicated that consenting will be via the nationally significant infrastructure (NSIP) route under the Planning Act 2008, with the need case set out in an ‘Airports National Policy Statement’ (NPS).

The news story promised a statement to the house at the earliest opportunity; that opportunity came shortly after late on Monday afternoon (14 December 2015).

The Secretary of State's statement on airport policy

The Secretary of State formally reiterated that the government accepted the case for expansion and the Commission's shortlist saying all three schemes were deemed viable by the Commission. It also more formally confirmed that the government would be undertaking a package of further work in four areas;

  • Air quality: testing the commission’s work against the government’s new air quality plan.
  • Noise: further engagement with the promoters to make sure the best package of noise mitigation measures are in place.
  • Carbon: look at all the measures to mitigate carbon impacts and address the sustainability concerns, particularly during construction.
  • Community: develop detailed community mitigation measures for each of the shortlisted options.

The Secretary of State confirmed that the government will begin work straight away, "…on preparing the building blocks for an airports national policy statement. In line with the Planning Act 2008. Putting this new framework in place will be essential groundwork for implementing the decisions we take on capacity, wherever new capacity is to be built."

Next steps

Saying that, "…we must get the next steps right." the Minister stated that the government expected to conclude the package of further work by the summer 2016, which would mean, critically, that the timetable for delivering additional capacity set out by Sir Howard could be maintained.

There is a formal consultation and adoption process that applies to NPS. These must be "designated" by the Secretary of State. The Planning Act 2008 requires NPSs to undergo both Parliamentary scrutiny and public consultation before they can be designated.

The Localism Act 2011 put the approval of NPSs by Parliament on a statutory footing. Approval of an NPS can occur either by "deemed consent" after a "consideration period”" of 21 sitting days passing without a vote, or if the House of Commons votes to approve the NPS within the 21 day period. In other words, once the public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny processes are completed the 'final' NPS must be formally laid before Parliament for a 21 day period for consideration. Provided that there is no vote against the NPS then it may be designated (approved by Parliament) at the end of that period. Once designated, an NPS will remain in force unless withdrawn or suspended in whole or in part by the Secretary of State.

The first NPSs to be adopted were the energy NPS. While these were subject to two rounds of consultation and scrutiny, due to a change in government, the second round of consultation was concluded in 8 months between November 2010 and July 2011. A number of further NPS have subsequently been designated. Some have taken longer; the National Networks NPS took over 12 months to be designated.

To date only the nuclear NPS is location specific. Like the other NPS the one on Waste Water contains generic information for relevant project applications. However, in so far as it differs, by containing site specific information in its Annex and stating that in the development of the NPS two schemes were identified for which the need case had been met, this NPS might provide a model for the future Airports NPS?

The scope of the future NPS is not yet clear, so will it also apply to regional airport infrastructure? The threshold for an extension to an airport is that it would increase capacity by at least 10 million passengers per year. Regional airports would need to meet this threshold to come within the Planning Act 2008 consenting regime; unless they were to apply for a direction pursuant to section 35 Planning Act 2008. The DfT, UK Space Agency and Civil Aviation Authority also recently delivered a briefing on emerging requirements for the UKSpaceport. The competition for this it intends to launch in the 'later half' of 2017 the government has indicated; perhaps the future NPS may also apply?     

If the government publishes a draft NPS for consultation after the conclusion of the further work it has now confirmed will be carried out, then we may see a draft published towards the middle/end of 2016 (if the government sticks to timetable), which would mean that the final NPS is not likely to be in place much before the middle of 2017. While promoters may commence work on an application before, acceptance of an application for examination may not be likely much before 2020/2022. By the same reckoning a decision on an application does not look likely much before 2025, perhaps in 2026? A tight timetable indeed to deliver on, by 2030.