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With just weeks to go before draft aviation policy is published, BAA makes a final bid to reopen Heathrow debate

BAA has today called , once again, for expansion at Heathrow Airport, claiming that this would bring significant economic benefits. Having taken account of all the evidence on the economic, climate and noise impacts of a third runway, the Coalition clearly ruled out expansion of the airport – already the busiest in the EU – from the moment it took office, and has recently stated that its review of UK aviation strategy will explore all options with the exception of a third runway at Heathrow.

BAA’s research, commissioned from Oxford Economics (a consultancy regularly used by the aviation industry, which has no connection to Oxford University) claims that the UK will lose out on both jobs and income from visitor spending if the airport is not expanded. But research in 2010 by the New Economics Foundation found that if community and environmental impacts were taken into account, the costs of building a third runway at Heathrow would outweigh the benefits by around £5 billion.

There has been some media speculation about BAA bringing a judicial review against the Government if the option of a third runway at Heathrow is not included in the draft aviation policy to be published at the end of this month. But there is also the looming possibility of the UK facing legal action and hefty fines from the European Commission for our continued failure to comply with air pollutions laws covering emissions of nitrogen dioxide, NO2. As a third runway would inevitably result in even higher NO2 levels, were the Government to backtrack on its election promise to oppose expansion, its defence – that it is doing everything it can to meet the targets – would surely crumble. The Environmental Audit Committee, which assesses the environmental impacts of Government policies, stated in a review of air pollution last month:

In the event of a third runway being developed at Heathrow, compliance with NO2 limits would be impossible. ….. [For] the Government to make the case that compliance with EU air quality limits throughout Greater London will be maintained beyond 2015, their application for an extension to meet EU limit values, the forthcoming Sustainable Framework for UK Aviation and the forthcoming Aviation National Policy Statement must contain an explicit prohibition of a third runway at Heathrow.

It is not difficult to conjure up impressive-sounding numbers in terms of jobs and other economic benefits associated with airport expansion. But these benefits often fail to materialise once the tarmac is laid, while environmental and community costs have in the past been too often sidelined. AEF welcomes the clear stance that this Government has taken in relation to Heathrow expansion and calls on the industry to show that it is ready to work within environmental limits.