Planning for airports: What next for the airports NPS?

Publication | July 2017

NPS background

The Government selected a new north-west runway at Heathrow (NWR) as its preferred option for airport expansion in the south-east in October 2016. This endorsed the recommendation of the Final Report of the Airports Commission in July 2015 which concluded that the proposal for the NWR at Heathrow, combined with a package of measures to address its environmental and community impacts, offered the greatest strategic and economic benefits.

Following the Government’s endorsement of Heathrow, the draft Airports National Policy Statement (NPS) was published in February 2017 for a four-month consultation setting out the reasons for this endorsement along with the policies which Heathrow will need to comply with in order to gain development consent.

The application for Heathrow’s new runway will be brought forward pursuant to the development consent order regime set out in the Planning Act 2008 for nationally significant infrastructure projects. The NPS will provide the policy backdrop for such application.

Once adopted, the NPS will also form the policy basis for assessing future applications for airport expansion in the South East of England (albeit note the comments below in this regard).

NPS progress

The NPS consultation received an enthusiastic response; whether or not such responses were enthusiastic about the proposals remains to be seen. The consultation closed on 25 May and the Government is currently analysing over 70,000 responses.

When launching the consultation, the Government noted that it expected to lay a final NPS before Parliament by winter 2017-18. On 13 July, the Government announced that this will now be delayed until the first half of 2018 (most likely a six-month delay), the delay being attributed to the timing of the election and the need to re-start a Select Committee inquiry into the draft NPS. The Transport Select Committee launched an inquiry into the NPS earlier in the year but this was closed due to the election; as such, and given parliamentary recess and the party conference season, it is unlikely that the inquiry will re-commence before the autumn.

Importantly, as part of its announcement, the Government emphasised that it remains “fully committed to realising the benefits that a new north-west runway at Heathrow would bring, in terms of economic growth, boosting jobs and skills, strengthening domestic links and – critically – increasing and developing our international connectivity as we prepare to leave the European Union”.

While the reasons given for the delay are plausible, it is likely that there are other factors in play. In particular, the Environmental Audit Committee published a report in February stating that the Government must publish a “comprehensive re-analysis” of the air quality impacts of Heathrow expansion alongside the final NPS, taking into account the Government’s new air quality plan which the High Court ordered to be published by 31 July.

In addition, in the NPS consultation document, the Government explained that it was undertaking further work to update its passenger forecasts and that it would publish the information as soon as possible during the consultation. The Government is yet to publish such information and has announced that the aviation model continues to be developed to allow final forecasts to be produced and that it is likely that publication will happen when all work in this area has been completed.

Therefore, in addition to reviewing the consultation responses, the Government has work of its own to do; work on sensitive issues which will likely form a pivotal part of the NPS. We anticipate that the air quality impacts will receive particular attention given the rising prominence of the issue; the objections to the Government’s attempts to delay publication of the draft air quality plan and the associated ClientEarth litigation support this.

NPS evolution

A likely focus of consultation responses will be the scope of the NPS; the introduction provides that “the Airports NPS provides the primary basis for decision making on development consent applications for a Northwest Runway at Heathrow Airport, and will be an important and relevant consideration in respect of applications for new runway capacity and other airport infrastructure in London and the South East of England.”

However, the NPS appears very ‘Heathrow-centric’. For instance, the ‘Assessment principles’ are explicitly framed as “general policies in accordance with which applications relating to a new Northwest Runway at Heathrow are to be decided”. The extent to which such principles would be applied in respect of non-Heathrow applications remains unclear. In addition, the ‘Specific impacts and requirements’ which cover the measures which will need to be put in place to mitigate impacts are, specifically, the impacts of the NWR. The extent to which non-Heathrow applications will need to provide such mitigation is also rather unclear.

Heathrow’s response to the consultation, included, as one of its three headline points that “the scope of the draft NPS could be made clearer, insofar as it relates to Heathrow. The intended scope of the draft NPS should be clear, in particular, on whether this is an NPS just for the Northwest Runway at Heathrow or whether, as we had anticipated and believe to be the case, it is an NPS which sets Government policy for new runway capacity in the South East. This latter approach would be more consistent with the expectation in existing Government policy set out in the APF but, in either event, the scope should be more clearly defined.”

It remains to be seen whether the Government responds by narrowing or broadening the scope of the NPS; narrowing to make it solely applicable to the NWR or broadening so as to provide a broader framework for all applications for new runway capacity and other airport infrastructure in London and the South East of England. In this regard, it is important to bear in mind the forthcoming review of the Aviation Policy Framework (APF), originally published in 2013, and which sets out the Government’s aviation policy more generally.  The review of the APF may provide a more appropriate forum for consideration of an overarching Airports NPS with attempts to broaden the focus of the current draft NPS away from Heathrow risking compromising its benefits to other airports by the overriding need to avoid internal inconsistencies with Heathrow-specific policy.

NPS next steps

All eyes will be on the re-commencement of the Select Committee inquiry into the NPS, the release of further details of the APF review and, finally, the publication of the revised NPS (and accompanying air quality assessment). While the Brexit workload is undoubtedly consuming Government resources at present, it is likely that the Government will seek to move as swiftly as possible to finalise the NPS and hence enable progression of the NWR project. As noted, the Government sees Heathrow expansion as important in the context of Brexit (“increasing and developing our international connectivity as we prepare to leave the European Union”) and part of the new extra-European agenda and so may be keen to allow the NPS to take off without further delay.

Airports NPS timeline

September 2012

  • Coalition Government establishes independent Airports Commission under Sir Howard Davies

December 2013

  • Airports Commission publishes Interim Report concluding that there is a need for one additional runway to be in operation in the SE of England by 2030
  • Consultation commences on three shortlisted schemes for expansion

September 2014

  • Airports Commission concludes that a new airport in the inner Thames Estuary does not merit further consideration alongside the three shortlisted schemes

July 2015

  • Airports Commission publishes Final Report recommending the Heathrow North-West Runway proposal (NWR) as the strongest case for expansion

June 2016

  • UK votes to leave the EU

October 2016

  • Government endorses Airports Commission's Final Report and announces that the NWR is its preferred scheme

February 2017

  • Government publishes draft Airports NPS and 4-month consultation period begins
  • Transport Select Committee launches inquiry into draft Airports NPS

May 2017

  • Consultation on draft Airports NPS and Transport Select Committee inquiry close

June 2017

  • General Election results in Hung Parliament. Conservative minority Government formed

July 2017

  • Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Grayling) issues written ministerial statement indicating that the Government will not lay any final NPS before Parliament until the first half of 2018
  • Lilian Greenwood (Labour) elected chair of the Transport Select Committee.

First half 2018

  • Final NPS to be put before Parliament


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