By Richard Johnstone

28 Nov 2018

The government’s recent moves to get the expansion of airport capacity off the ground are the latest twist in one of the UK’s longest running policy sagas. Richard Johnstone considers whether this new plan will take flight

Photos: PA; Caroline Low photo by Paul Heartfield

Despite the tribulations of Brexit, the government has made progress on some of Britain’s most longstanding infrastructure projects in the last year. Work has begun on both the High Speed 2 and the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant after decades of debate while, most unlikely of all, parliament has approved proposals to expand Heathrow airport, which have been awaiting lift off in various iterations since 1968.

June’s vote in favour of a third runway at the London airport is the latest twist in a long-running saga, but it represents one of the first achievements of the Airport Expansion Directorate formed in the Department for Transport in 2015.

The directorate was created to take forward the recommendations of the Airport Commission established by government to examine the case for additional capacity in the south east of England, and led by Sir Howard Davies, a former director general of the CBI and ex-chair of the Financial Services Authority.

Caroline Low, the director of the group, says that prior to the directorate being set up, airport expansion was dealt with as part of the general aviation strategy.

Now, the directorate is in the middle of one of Britain’s trickiest projects. “While the commission was doing its work there was a team of commissioners, so the vast majority of work was going on outside this building with an independent team,” Low says. These days, however, the major work is back in house.

Setting up the Davies Commission “was a big step” for the DfT, Low says. She’s not wrong: airport expansion has been a long, turbulent journey. Academics Steven Griggs and David Howarth studied the development of aviation policy for their 2013 book The Politics of Airport Expansion in the United Kingdom. Speaking with CSW, the pair highlight that throughout the post-war period, successive British governments – and most governments in advanced industrial economies – believed aviation was good for the economy.

This led to a “predict and provide” model for the continued expansion of aviation, with successive UK governments working on the basis of increasing capacity. “Yet, as aviation has expanded, particularly with the arrival of the jet engines and increasing noise, it has also brought growing political opposition to expansion, especially amongst communities in and around airports and under flight paths,” Howarth says.

The policy highwater mark for expansion was the Labour government’s 2003 airport white paper, which aimed to set out a framework for three decades of additional capacity – but that was also met by newly-emboldened opposition.

“In response to the national consultation process of the Blair government, we saw a coming together of local resident campaigns against airport expansion with the rise of environmental concerns linked to aviation expansion, to form a united front against expansion at any airport in the UK,” Griggs says.

This raised the political stakes, with an alliance between those concerned about environmental impact and local disruption having already formed what Griggs calls the “vegans and Volvos” opposition to a second runway at Manchester airport in the 1990s.

Such movements mean successive governments have not been able to increase airport capacity, Howarth adds, despite often having the policy intention to do so. Instead, government have been limited to incrementalism – “a new runway here, a new terminal there, or rising of capacity limits.”

It was into this environment that David Cameron stepped when Conservative leader, with his pledge to end the government policy of backing expansion, encapsulated in his October 2009 comment that “the third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts”.

This pledge become the government’s position when the coalition government was formed in 2010, but Howarth and Griggs say the promise of no new runways had not been embedded in wider government policy before the Davies commission was formed. It was announced by then transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin in 2012 as a way to “have a long term aviation policy which meets the challenges of the future”.

The lack of an alternative strategy for aviation based on existing capacity, coupled to the global positioning of London and the southeast as a driver of the UK economy, meant the moratorium struggled to survive, Griggs argues.

“This goes to the heart of the political problem – the rival actors and coalitions do not see the problem through the same lens,” says Howarth.

The Davies Commission’s work was ongoing through the 2015 general election, and examined proposals for an additional runway at Gatwick as well as an entirely new airport in the Thames Estuary – often dubbed Boris Island after its most famous proponent – before recommending the Heathrow plan.

When the Conservative government then took office in 2015, the expansion directorate was created, and Low was there from the start. Having joined the DfT in 2005 working on corporate finance, it was a big move for her, as well as the department.

“I had got to know a lot of people in the department in a lot of policy areas, including working on the Civil Aviation Act in 2012, and then was encouraged to apply for the director role. Somewhat to my surprise, I got it.”

After a thorough review of the commission’s July 2015 report, in October 2016 ministers provisionally backed the recommendation for a third runway at Heathrow, which would be set out in an Airports National Policy Statement. These policy statements form part of the planning process for nationally significant infrastructure projects, and a total of 12 have been issued across sectors including energy, waste water, and other areas of transport.

“What ministers decided to do was a national policy statement that was very focused on expansion in one location, and they chose the Heathrow north west runway as the one that they thought delivered the most benefits for the whole country,” says Low.

Her directorate led the work on this NPS as well as advising ministers and the Cabinet sub-committee on the plan.

“The commission has given us very clear evidence base from which to support the policy statement and, importantly, not just a clear evidence base that helped ministers decide what the right solution was but also a lot of information about what the right package of mitigation and compensation was for people affected (see box),” Low says.

“We took what the commission has given us and created a draft national policy which then went out for consultations and all the local communities and authorities around the airport were able to respond.”


Low describes the mitigation measures that were recommended by the Davies commission and included in the National Policy Statement as best practice sourced from around the world.

Measures set out include an expected six and a half hour total ban on scheduled night flights landing or taking off from an expanded Heathrow between the hours of 11pm and 7am, as well as a noise envelope with clear noise performance targets. Low acknowledges “some people will lose their houses and that’s incredibly difficult” as a result of expansion, but she adds that the mitigation package “is a step change in thinking about how to address the needs of communities”.

“There are huge benefits coming in relation to noise with modern aircraft and airspace change. There will still be people affected by noise, but I think that the night flight ban is a massive step forward in terms of impacts on communities.”

Low says that the runway also creates a genuine opportunity to improve the local environment.

“Heathrow talk about the green and blue belt around the airport, and they’ll be consulting on creating a green band of walkway and cycleway around the airport – which would really change how easy it is for the employees to cycle to work – and cleaning up some of the bits of water and parkland around the airport so they become a really positive local amenity.”

This followed what Low calls “quite a structured process” – Heathrow Airport Limited only responded to the NPS through the consultation and the process for analysing its response was the same as for any other interested party.

Following that landmark parliamentary vote in June, the NPS now sets the policy framework for airport expansion, although the NPS is still subject to judicial review.

“We’ve reached a major milestone,” Low says. “We received the report in 2015 and just before [summer] recess this year we designated a national policy statement. That bookends a huge amount of work – from taking the report and understanding it to dealing with new data produced after the commission had reported to us and which therefore needed to be taken into account.”

The designation of the NPS means that Low and her team can now work in a different way with Heathrow Airport to ensure their planning application delivers the wider benefits and mitigation that were part of the NPS.

The next milestone will be for Heathrow as the promoter of the scheme to go out to consultation on its much more detailed plans. “The NPS is quite high level – it doesn’t tell you what the terminals will look like, where the car parks will be, and the detailed way in which they will deliver the scheme,” says Low. “That is obviously really important to make sure the impact on the local community is managed so far as it can be.”

It is Heathrow’s job to put in place the planning application, with the directorate’s role evolving into one of “joining up to make sure that the right people are talking to each other”. For example, the DfT has pushed Heathrow to establish a community engagement board that will work to implement the mitigation measures.

This move will require a shift in the composition of the team at the directorate. “We have a lot of people at the moment working on legal cases and we’re just starting to move into the new phase,” Low says. “Having had quite a tightly constrained process because of the legal rules around how consultations are run, we can now have many more of the team engaging with Heathrow and with the communities and local authorities around Heathrow.”

Since the foundation of the directorate, it has attracted “some fantastic people”, Low says, many of whom have since been promoted. “We’re having to do a lot of recruitment at the moment and that’s great, I’m really pleased people have been able to use it as a springboard to go on to other interesting things,” she adds.

Given the long-term nature of the project – the runway is not expected to be operational until 2030 at the earliest – how does Low retain the focus on the end goal as the team’s composition and day-to-day focus evolves?

“In some senses that’s very easy for us because it is pretty clear what we’re all aiming for, which is a new runway in the south east by 2030. Then we have milestones on the way. We have the NPS, which was a great thing to be aiming for, and now it is supporting Heathrow to put its application in. That is the next one- to two-year goal, and we’ve also got an eye on the end point.”

This brings into focus the key question – given the political turbulence of airport expansion over the decades, will the third Heathrow runway ever open?

“The commission has given us a very clear evidence base from which to support the policy statement”

Caroline Low

Howarth and Griggs say this remains uncertain due to what they call “traditional problems” of aviation expansion like noise and air quality, as well as increased concerns over carbon emissions and climate change.

“It should be noted that the UK is not alone in recent years in facing opposition to expansion,” Griggs says. “The French government abandoned its proposals for a new airport near Nantes in January 2018 – a project first mooted in the 1950s – and there’s opposition to expansion in Munich and Frankfurt.”

However, he notes that “Brexit has given an added impetus to the arguments in favour of expansion and the need to connect to emerging markets in a post-Brexit world”.

“The 2009 anti-Heathrow coalition could come back into play, particularly if they are able to mobilise climate change arguments. And there will also be legal challenges at the local level.”

The project has to go through the planning process, leading to a separate decision on whether to grant development consent. But Low seems optimistic. “I think it will be an important project for the UK for all sorts of reasons. If Heathrow, with our support, get it right then they will develop innovative processes in the way they are building the runway. There will be all sorts of interesting lessons coming out of this which other projects can draw on, which will be good news for the country.”

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