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Heathrow third runway gets green light but construction could be pushed back to 2022

Construction of Heathrow’s third runway could be held up until 2022, planning experts have warned, as opponents including London’s mayor prepare legal challenges.

Heathrow was expected to hold talks with its development partners as Construction News went to press to discuss how to proceed with planning for its third runway in light of the government’s support, which drew widespread praise from industry.

The government will put forward a National Policy Statement on its support for Heathrow in the new year and has hired former senior president of tribunals Sir Jeremy Sullivan to oversee the NPS process, before MPs vote on it and a planning application is made to the Planning Inspectorate.

Taylor Wessing head of planning Al Watson said the appointment of the “generation’s leading planning lawyer” to lead the NPS indicated the government knows it needs to “get it right first time to allow the timeframe to work”.

Heathrow reiterated it would have an operational runway by 2025, after the decision was made. The airport has proposed starting construction in 2020 in order to have the third runway operational from 2025.

However, Mr Watson warned the multitude of challenges ahead, both legal and political, could see construction pushed back to “late 2021 or 2022”.

Opponents of the scheme would want to “hit hard and hit early” and try to slow the formulation of the NPS by challenging the government’s decision to back Heathrow this week, he said.

He added that, aside from legal challenges, airlines could fight having to pay extra charges to fund the expansion upfront; landowners in the airport’s locality would likely refuse access to land for surveying; and the mayor’s office and Greater London Authority were likely to put “considerable resources” into challenging the decision on air quality grounds.

Heathrow Holdings Limited also needs to press on with securing a Development Consent Order before the next general election, in order to ensure there isn’t a change of political will from the next government, Mr Watson added.

Robbie Owen, head of infrastructure planning and government affairs at Pinsent Masons, which is advising Heathrow, agreed that construction would likely begin in 2021/2022, depending on the consent process.

He said: “The development consent process is a very well understood process and has issued over 60 consents now since it started in 2010, even for big schemes like Hinkley Point C and Thames Tideway Tunnel, so it’s pretty predictable in terms of the timescales.”

Gatwick development director Ray Melee told the Construction News Summit this month that the airport would press ahead with expansion, regardless of the government’s preferred option for a new runway.

But Mr Owen said: “Gatwick will not be able to go ahead with its scheme because the NPS will say ‘the only scheme in town is Heathrow’ and therefore Gatwick will not be able to promote a scheme that is contrary to that.

”Once the NPS is in place… if Gatwick tries to apply [for a Development Consent Order] then they would have to have that turned down as a matter of law.”

Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate said: “We are disappointed as we do not believe this is the right answer for Britain. The challenges facing Heathrow have not changed. Our message today is that Gatwick stands ready to proceed when the time comes.”

Heathrow will now be asked to find ways to reduce costs and the timescale of the work to build the new runway.

The airport’s expansion development partners are Mace, Arup, CH2M and Turner & Townsend.

Mace chief operating officer for major programmes and infrastructure Jason Millett said that there would be a “huge sigh of relief” in the construction industry at the decision.

He said reducing the timescale and cost of the programme was “at the forefront of everyone’s minds” and that he personally hoped to see the DCO work run concurrently with the government’s NPS planning.

“The next steps are about mobilising the [development] team over the next 12 months.”

Mr Millett said he understood the objections, as someone living on Stansted Airport’s flight path, but argued the project was of national significance and the UK had to “get on with it”.

“We have a great opportunity here. We need to make sure all the learnings from other major infrastructure projects are built into [the new runway].”

Richmond Park MP Zac Goldsmith, an opponent of Heathrow expansion, has expressed his intention to resign following the decision. The move will trigger a by-election for his seat.

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