Skip to content

Weak government air quality plan remains silent on Heathrow third runway

5th May, 2017

The Government has today published an updated air quality plan, with new figures suggesting London may not be compliant with legal limits even by 2030. But despite projections having shown Heathrow expansion would increase levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in an area that has remained persistently in breach of legal limits, today’s plan remains silent on the implications of a third runway opening mid-2020s, with emissions associated with expansion apparently not even modelled.

Reacting to today’s publication, AEF Deputy Director Cait Hewitt said:

“The Government has yet again failed to set out a convincing plan for bringing London’s air pollution down to levels that are legally compliant and safe for health. We’ll now wait to see whether further legal action will be taken.

In the meantime ministers are hoping to lock in parliamentary support for Heathrow expansion by the end of the year, despite new forecasts indicating that London may still be non-compliant with air pollution limits by 2030, and despite knowing that a third runway, due to open mid-2020s, would make the problem worse.

The process for approving Heathrow expansion should be halted immediately, and reconsulted on only once an effective and legally compliant air quality plan is in place, so that the impact of a third runway can be properly assessed.”

Court actions and government delay

A number of cities in the UK are currently breaching legal air quality limits, putting public health at significant risk. Campaign group ClientEarth had taken legal action against the Government, arguing that its previous plan for tackling air quality relied on over-optimistic modelling, and contained insufficient measures to tackle the problem.

The court agreed and ordered the publication of a new plan by 24th April. A last minute application by Government to delay the date until after the General Election was turned down, with the court ruling that the plan should not be delayed for political reasons and must be published by 9th May. Comment in today’s press speculates that “with the general election looming, the plans have been watered down to limit the immediate impact on the drivers of Britain’s 12 million diesel cars”. The press release from the Department for Transport states that local authorities “will now be expected to develop new and creative solutions to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, while avoiding undue impact on the motorist.”

The new forecasts reflect more realistic projections of NO2 from diesel vehicles than were assumed in the previous air quality plan, after the VW scandal revealed that real-world emissions are far higher than those modelled in lab conditions. Yet proposals for effective measures to tackle the problem are thin on the ground. Anticipated commitments from Government to introduce a diesel scrappage scheme, and to give local authorities new powers to introduce charging zones have, for example, been omitted from the plan published today.

What does this mean for Heathrow?

The Heathrow area has remained persistently in breach of legal limits for NO2, with previous hopes that vehicle emissions in the area would fall significantly having failed to materialise. Forecasts from both the Airports Commission and the Government show that expansion would act to further increase NO2 as a result extra emissions from aircraft together with associated passenger and freight traffic on the roads.

The Airports Commission argued, however, that the scheme could legally proceed as long as it did not ‘delay compliance’ with the law, on the assumption that parts of central London might have even worse air quality than the roads around Heathrow.

What’s next?

Several of the local authorities around Heathrow have indicated that they plan to judicially review the Government’s plan for expansion at the airport on the basis that it contravenes the legal requirement to achieve air quality limits in the shortest possible time.

James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth has meanwhile said today “The air quality plans are much weaker than expected. The Government says pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health, yet under the plan we will be faced with illegal air quality for years to come.” The organisation has yet to make a statement on further legal action.

A consultation on the air quality proposals runs until 16th June. Plans for the third runway are proceeding in parallel, with a consultation on the National Policy Statement (which could lock in parliamentary support for a new runway) closing on 25th May and a vote planned in the autumn.