A decision on where to add new runway capacity in the south-east has been pushed back by the UK government until at least the summer while it further considers the environmental impact and possible mitigating measures.

The government had said it would before the end of the year give "clear direction" on its response to the UK Airports Commission, which unanimously backed building a third runway when its two and a half-year study was completed in the summer.

But speculation had been mounting that the government might further delay the politically divisive decision, after a parliamentary environmental audit committee at the end of November called on it not to approve expansion at Heathrow until the airport can demonstrate that it will comply with key environmental conditions.

In a statement the UK transport department says it has accepted the case for airport expansion in the south-east and the Airports Commission's shortlist of three options for expansion. This also includes a second runway at London Gatwick and the Heathrow Hub plan to expand the airport's northern runway.

But it says a decision on the location is subject to further consideration on environmental impacts and the best possible mitigation measures. It says it will undertake a package of a further work and it anticipates that will conclude over the summer. "The Government will do this quickly so that the timetable for delivering capacity set out by the Airports Commission can be met," it says.

“The case for aviation expansion is clear – but it’s vitally important we get the decision right so that it will benefit generations to come," says transport minister Patrick McLoughlin. "We will undertake more work on environmental impacts, including air quality, noise and carbon.

“We must develop the best possible package of measures to mitigate the impacts on local people. We will continue work on all the shortlisted locations, so that the timetable for more capacity set out by [Airports Commission head] Sir Howard Davies is met.

“At the first opportunity I will make a statement to the House to make clear our plans.”

While acknowledging its detailed and comprehensive report would need careful analysis by the government, Davies in publishing its findings said the Commission urged it "not to prolong the process" and to move as quickly as it can to a decision. "Further delay will be increasingly costly and will be seen, nationally and internationally, as a sign that the UK is unwilling or unable to take the steps needed to maintain its position as a well-connected, open trading economy in the twenty-first century," Davies said.

The Airport Commission's backing for Heathrow though did little to quell the long-running and politically charged debate around airport expansion in London, and supporters from all sides have continued to press their case.

Following the pushing back of the decision, Heathrow Airport says it has "full confidence" that expansion can be delivered within environmental limits and notes the government has validated the Airports Commission's finding which gave a "unanimous and unambiguous recommendation" for Heathrow expansion.

"The Airports Commission, announced by the prime minister three years ago, made a unanimous and unambiguous recommendation in July for Heathrow expansion," says Heathrow Airport chief executive John Holland-Kaye. "Our new plan will connect the whole nation to global growth. I am confident we can meet tough environmental standards."

“We have support locally and nationally from politicians, business, trade unions and the aviation industry for Heathrow expansion," he adds.

Boss of Gatwick Airport Stewart Wingate has maintained the south London airport remains in the race and describes the move to delay the decision as "defining moment" in the expansion debate.

"There is now a clear choice facing Britain: growth with Gatwick or inertia at Heathrow with an illegal scheme that has failed time and time again," says Wingate.

“We have always maintained that this decision is about balancing the economy and the environment. We are glad that the Government recognises that more work on environmental impact needs to be done. Air quality, for example, is a public health priority and obviously the legal safeguards around it cannot be wished away."

Jock Lowe, who heads the third shortlisted option Heathrow hub, also sees its proposal as "still very much in the game" after the government announcement.

“We are delighted that the Government has accepted the case for expansion and the full shortlist originally drawn up by the Airports Commission," says Lowe “There can be no doubt that expansion at Heathrow is in the best economic interests of the entire country and our extended runway is cheaper, simpler and less disruptive than Heathrow Airport's own third runway scheme. It also brings no new areas into the noise footprint.

"Given the importance of this major national infrastructure decision, a short delay to do additional work on the noise and air quality impacts of airport expansion seems sensible to us."

Source: Cirium Dashboard