Heathrow expansion tests UK’s sustainable resolve

The UK government’s credibility for taking sustainable development into account when deciding major development is being called to question following the approval on 20 November of a fifth terminal at London’s Heathrow airport.

The £2.25 billion expansion was decided on the basis of national interest, with “strict conditions imposed” including a cap on the number of flights to address noise issues, and new facilities to expand existing public transport links. However, throughout the nearly four-year public inquiry into the terminal, evidence provided by the planning applicant, British Airports Authority plc, is reported to have indicated potentially significant infringements of national environmental legislation and the government’s sustainable development targets.

In particular BAA asked the inspector to put aside concerns about air quality ‘in the national interest’, and is reported to have admitted to the public inquiry that Terminal Five (T5) would cause severe breaches of the National Air Quality standards well into the second quarter of the century. Paul de Zylva, aviation campaigner at Friends of the Earth (FOE), told edie, that he raised this issue with transport minister, Stephen Byers ahead of the decision, pointing out that local authorities would have problems meeting their own and national air quality standards should the expansion proceed. FOE is also calling for integrated pollution control (IPC) and air quality controls to be extended to airports.

The government’s conditions to meet transport concerns are also viewed as inadequate by opponents, and likely to generate more demands on the road network. FOE said car park provision has been cut by 9% from the original to provide the country’s biggest car park with 42,000 spaces. Also the extensions of the Heathrow Express and the Piccadilly Line specified by government to be operational before the new terminal is opened, look unlikely to cope with the expected demand. Paul de Zylva said BAA had admitted T5 would generate 49,000 extra car trips across Greater London per day and that its premium Heathrow Express service is taking only 3000 cars off the roads between central London and Heathrow.

Even the government’s declared cap on flight numbers annually at 480,000 – only 20,000 more than flight numbers in 2000, is unlikely to be legally binding, added Paul de Zylva, which leaves it open to be flouted.

The prospect of a further expansion with the building of a third runway has also not been ruled out by transport minister, Stephen Byers. Opponents say the latest decision follows a pattern of approvals for expansion of Heathrow, leaving the door open for future expansion, by creating the conditions to make expansion inevitable.

Approval of the terminal is likely to be challenged in the courts by opponents.

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