Following parliamentary backing for the National Policy Statement (NPS) allowing the expansion of Heathrow airport, which the Commons Transport Committee said should only go ahead with various safeguards, Transport Network spoke to committee chair Lilian Greenwood MP about the unresolved environmental and surface access issues.
What do you make of the Government’s focus in the NPS on compliance with on legal obligations rather than ‘avoiding significant impacts on health and quality of life’, as your committee recommended?
Well I think that even if you go back to the Airports Commission they’ve said that air quality won’t be a problem. Heathrow isn’t going to delay in breaching of air quality because there is this worse road somewhere else.
And your predecessor committee criticised this approach...
I think that was widely held to be the wrong approach. And it is a concern obviously, but even leaving that aside there is a concern about whether the Government will meet its air quality obligations in general. I suppose that the view of the Committee was that these things were quite high risk and that’s why we wanted there to be extra headroom – because it is difficult to predict the future and if you look at recent past the Government hasn’t been successful in tackling air quality and it isn’t predicted to meet its air quality targets.
So unless there’s a significant improvement in their approach then I think that will be a worry. In a wider view, you’ll note that our Committee alongside three others has recently published a report on improving air quality in which we were quite critical of the government approach.
Do you think that we’re now beyond with the Airports Commission's point that if the airport isn’t going to delay compliance with the EU Air Quality Directive any additional breach is irrelevant?
I do think that we’ve moved beyond that. I think there is a recognition that they need to target the air quality around the airport but we didn’t feel they’ve fully taken into account the implications in a wider area and that’s why we’ve called for more safeguarding around the issue.
And the flipside is that worsening air quality in particular zones might not take the NO2 concentrations above the legal limit but would still have an impact on the health of people, which is what your committee’s recommendations focused on?
Absolutely. You would hope that the aim would be to help and improve people’s quality of life rather than simply meet the narrow requirements of the current regulations.
We know that the current regulation isn’t as stringent as the World Health Organisation would recommend, for example. It’s rather a minimal approach, rather than looking at the broader concerns that we should have about the health and wellbeing of local communities.
The Government has given us the assurance that there is no intention to water down these regulations but obviously we’re keen to see a new Clean Air Act and for these regulations to be strengthened. We certainly don’t know what the enforcement methods will be around air quality will be when we leave the EU.
So there is some uncertainty in that respect but I think the overriding concern is to make sure that the Government has in place plans that will ensure that there isn’t a deterioration in air quality and in fact that there is a big improvement in air quality.
I suppose the concern of the Committee is that there wasn’t sufficient certainty around those things and that because airport expansion would have, or could potentially have, a significant impact on air quality, that there needed to be further safeguards in place.
Do you think that the requirements around demonstrating no increase in road traffic, which is Heathrow’s pledge, and modal shift prior to development consent being granted are strong enough in the way that they have been expressed in the NPS ?
No. We called for stronger requirements around surface access because we thought that there was too much scope for unintended surface access impacts of the scheme and that additional safeguards were required.
That’s why we recommended a condition of approval for the target so the target for no more airport-related traffic can be met. So the Government have said that can be dealt with at DCO [development consent order] stage but it seemed to me that that wasn’t sufficiently strong.
Do you think that the requirement for Heathrow to report on progress towards its targets as it goes along is useful in that context?
I suppose that would tell us whether they were on track to deliver the modal shift that they promised, but I think that those are very challenging targets and even then Transport for London don’t think that the mode share target that they’re aiming at is high enough to achieve the no-more-airport-related-traffic pledge. So it’s helpful to have milestones to see if they’re on the way, but it is very challenging and we had some scepticism about whether the airport would be able to achieve that.
And I think that in the extra information that the Government did publish around surface access, unmitigated they expected a certain 33% increase in airport-related traffic by 2030 in private vehicles.
So they’re fighting against a big potential upshift there?
Is there anything to stop Heathrow dropping its proposed potential measures in its consultation, like the emissions based surcharge or the drop-off and pick-up charges, once the new runway us open or once it’s got development consent?
I think from what the Government’s response suggests, they will put criteria on Heathrow as part of the DCO process to ensure that things like their promise around no additional traffic are delivered. So obviously, given that the NPS has passed through Parliament without significant changes from the draft in that respect, we’ll be looking very closely at scrutinising the Government in holding Heathrow to account in upholding the promises that they have made.
One of the issues we were very concerned is, to what extent is the power there to ensure that the promises they have made, which are substantial, are actually delivered?
One of your recommendations was that one of the options could be that the new capacity is only released if and when the targets have been met.
Obviously that was a safeguard that we wanted to be written into the NPS and that isn’t well that didn’t happen.
But you would still want that happen?
Well clearly, the NPS has passed in the form that it has passed and you’ll know that obviously in terms of the Committee we were split in terms of how we finally voted on the NPS. So it depends on to what extent you believe that the Government can achieve these things through the DCO process when it isn’t written as a safeguard within the NPS. But when the Committee made its recommendations, that was one of the things that we sought to be incorporateded in the NPS.
I voted against the approval of the NPS and obviously I set those out in my speech to the House on the day. I think there were three members of the Committee that voted against the NPS. I don’t think the other members of the Committee who voted got to speak in the debate because it was oversubscribed.
And was your main objection that your Committee's 25 recommendations were not, on the whole, taken forward, although the Government said it had addressed 24 of them?
Yes. It was very clear to me that the case for expansion is very compelling but our recommendation that it should be approved was contingent of there being additional safeguards for the local communities and for passengers.
Whilst the Government, when they responded, when the secretary of state made his statement to the House certainly gave the impression that he had accepted 24 out of 25 recommendations, when we conducted a more detailed analysis it seemed clear to us that actually there were only two or three recommendations that had been accepted.
I suppose you could say that they welcomed the spirit of what we said but they certainly didn’t incorporate them into the NPS and they expect them to be dealt with through the DCO process.
And of course Parliament only has the power over the NPS. Our concern was that we felt the safeguards should’ve been written into the NPS. In the committee we had mixed views about the extent to which that was acceptable to be just dealt with by the DCO process.
Part of my concern was that if the Government had said, well we don’t accept these recommendations and here’s why and this is how we’re going to deal with them…I was almost more concerned that they sought to give the impression that they had accepted 24 of our recommendations when in fact that wasn’t the case. And for me there was not the level of candour that I would expect from the department and I think that was part of the reason why I couldn’t support the final NPS.
You were also concerned that the costs, especially the surface access and public transport improvements and the changes to the M25 haven't yet been quantified. Do you remain concerned that those costs remain unquantified and may not be something that the airport itself can afford?
Obviously we did a lot of work on the costs and we were given a lot of assurances that that cost of the whole scheme would be kept under control and the airlines were very clear that while they strongly support expansion, it’s not at any cost. They were concerned about Heathrow’s track record in maintaining cost discipline and that if there were cost increases those would be passed on to passengers. So some of this is about the safeguarding of passengers.
We know that the scheme itself has to be financially viable and in relation to surface access costs, obviously there’s a huge discretioncy between the five billion that has been written into the Government`s assumptions and the amount that other people think that those surface access schemes will cost.
Obviously one of those people who have expressed concern about the cost is the Mayor of London and TfL. We all know that major pieces of transport infrastructure have a habit of not being quite so easy to solve as we first thought. So I think there’s certainly a degree of risk around cost, especially when they’re at an early stage of development.
We all know, once you start to get more into the detail of design and looking at some of the underlying issues, sometimes you can uncover issues that are going to add additional costs. The remodelling of the M25 is very significant and at this stage we don’t have the level of detail around that.
And it’s not entirely clear what public transport improvements will need to be delivered to deliver this modal shift. So on both fronts there’s a level of risk. Is this something that you were concerned about?
Yes, we sought to clarify what’s needed for the existing two runway airport, particularly with London expanding quite rapidly – and obviously that was one of TfL’s concerns that they are already assuming that they need all the extra capacity that is created by schemes like Crossrail. We are now developing a huge amount of extra demand as a result of a third runway. And I think obviously that's we’ll be needing to keep up with given where it’s at now, which is that the NPS has gained approval, looking carefully at what happens.
And even on western rail access and southern rail access, where the Government has given a strong commitment, so that’s a positive, it’s still not clear whether that money has been allocated.
Both of those are within the rail network enhancements pipeline and it’s not entirely clear where the money for that will come from. Obviously southern rail access is a private scheme and this is a new concept in terms of rail so there’s still a degree of uncertainty around those things, welcome as they both were.
And uncertainty over what Heathrow’s ‘fair and reasonable contribution’ to those schemes will be?
Well I’ve got no doubt that they will be arguing very strongly about what their contribution should be because obviously those things would be of wider passenger benefit not just airport-related travel.
The August/September issue of Highways magazine will include a feature on the environmental and surface access issues involved in Heathrow expansion.