The question of where to build a new runway in the south east is an issue that has been stuck in the hangar for years.
The current choice, between Heathrow or Gatwick, is just the latest instalment in a long-running capacity saga. Since 1963, no fewer than 12 policy documents, commissions or white papers have been produced on where to build new runways in the London area.
This month, the government is finally expected to make a decision following a meeting of a cabinet sub-committee on aviation to be chaired by Prime Minister Theresa May.
And the mood music is pointing to new capacity at Heathrow in the form of a third strip, or at least an extension to the existing northern runway.
Reports at the weekend suggested that foreign secretary Boris Johnson – a long-time advocate of airport expansion but not at Heathrow – would not stand in the way of a third runway at the airport, removing one potential obstacle to expanding the west London hub.
Key members of the influential transport select committee back Heathrow. Chair Louise Ellman says: “I’m a supporter of Heathrow, it’s the right place to further the needs of UK plc.” Fellow committee member and Labour MP Mary Glindon added: “I can’t see the case for Gatwick being anywhere near as important nationally.”
Last year, the Airports Commission, headed by Sir Howard Davies, recommended Heathrow as the most suitable site for a new runway.
The argument goes that an additional Heathrow runway could generate up to £100bn in economic benefits, create an estimated 100,000 new jobs, and connect the UK to new global markets in the post-Brexit world.
However, any decision could immediately become mired in legal action. A Whitehall source said: “There will no doubt be a legal challenge from whichever airport the decision doesn’t go in favour of, particularly [given] the amount of money they’ve poured into their advertising.”
Earlier this year solicitors Harrison Grant acting on behalf of Hillingdon, Richmond, Wandsworth & Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead councils said the PM can expect court action against a third Heathrow runway.
Unlawful air quality impacts, intolerable noise levels, a lack of any meaningful consultation and a flawed and inadequate process leading up to this decision are just some of the grounds on which this scheme is said to be open to legal challenge.
Dan Lewis, senior infrastructure adviser at the Institute of Directors, adds: “There’s a lot of difference between a decision being made and a stake going into the ground.”
This increases the chance that more than one runway could be pre-approved this month. Rumours are circulating that both Heathrow and Gatwick or Birmingham could get new strips – but not just Gatwick alone. Another proposal would see Heathrow’s northern runway extended.
Whatever the decision, the government will then seek parliamentary approval for a national policy statement on aviation.
“Once the government has made its choice between Heathrow or Gatwick for the first runway, it then needs to begin the process of setting out how and when further runway capacity should be developed, taking a broader view of the potential options,” says Charlie Cornish, CEO of Manchester
Airports Group which owns London Stansted, Manchester, East Midlands and Bournemouth airports.
“The timescales involved in planning and delivering new infrastructure mean that it is vital the government provides a framework for further runway capacity to be delivered at the right time, not decades after it is needed.
“Outside the EU, the UK will simply not be able to afford to procrastinate over such important issues, and we must develop more robust and efficient ways to deliver the infrastructure we need.”
Yesterday, Gatwick Airport said it will continue preparations to expand, even if Heathrow gets the go-ahead for a third runway. In its favour are claims that the Surrey runway could be built by 2025, and no taxpayer funding is required. But yet again, there is strong local opposition.
A decision may be imminent but it will be years before the diggers start work.