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BBC ‘Panorama’ programme on Heathrow

22nd July, 2008

On Monday 21st July the BBC television programme ‘Panorama’ was devoted to Heathrow expansion.

There has already been a lot of debate and publicity about this at national level, with the Sunday Times and Justine Greening, MP claiming both “collusion” between the DfT (Department for Transport) and BAA (the operator of Heathrow), and the “massaging” of figures to show that air pollution limits would not be breached.

Panorama explored these claims further and uncovered other concerns, particularly in relation to the changes in aircraft fleet mix. It had originally been forecast that 20% of planes using Heathrow would be very large 4-engined jets. These are, in absolute terms, the most polluting planes (basically because they are the biggest). This led to estimated levels of air pollution that would exceed EU air pollution standards. According to Panorama, DfT changed the proportion of these biggest planes to 6%, based on BAA’s own figures, without explanation.  Lo and behold, the air pollution levels were then within limits!

Remaining within the limits is also dependent on the operation of cleaner aircraft in the future. In its response to the Heathrow Consultation, the AEF expressed significant concerns as to whether the predicted technological improvements could be achieved within the necessary timescales. Panorama’s investigation supports this view: it found that the major aircraft manufacturers had no plans to build the ‘green’ planes used in the air pollution modelling. See Sunday Times article. Commenting on the air quality work undertaken for Heathrow, Professor Mike Pilling, who had been on the Government’s Heathrow air pollution working group, and is a recognised world expert, said [we paraphrase] that one could not be confident of meeting EU limits on the basis of these studies.

Perhaps the biggest omission in the programme was any mention of a potential “derogation” in respect of air quality . This would allow the UK government to go to the EU to ask that air pollution standards, due to come into force in 2010, be set aside until 2015. This would enable the government to go ahead with ‘mixed mode’ without fear of EU sanctions (a third runway would not be in use until well after 2015). We understand that the government will ask for a derogation covering the whole of London. While central London frequently breaches limits (due mainly to road traffic) the justification for extending it to greater London seems to be based largely on the need for flexibility at Heathrow.