Generics at Heathrow airport
© Charlie Bibby

Heathrow’s selection as the site of the first new airport runway in decades in south-east England looks to have doomed the pretty village of Harmondsworth. Many of its shops and pubs will be flattened and its ancient monuments ruined by noise and fumes.

Yet it could be many years before aircraft are revving their engines near the site of the Crown pub or coming in to land by the mid-11th century St Mary’s Church or the 590-year-old Great Barn. A host of legal, planning, logistical and financial barriers stand in the way.

Interior of the medieval Grade 1 listed Harmondsworth Great Barn
Interior of the medieval Grade 1 listed Harmondsworth Great Barn © Getty

The Heathrow plan is likely to face significant further legal challenges, go through two further separate approval processes and will have to raise financing before work can even begin. Physical obstacles include having to build over London’s M25 orbital motorway.

Al Watson, head of planning and environment for Taylor Wessing, an international law firm, says the balancing of transport, environmental, social and economic risks is a huge task. “As we know from previous years, the fact that government says ‘we support a third runway at Heathrow’ doesn’t deliver it.”

The most likely way forward for the government will be to draw up a Development Consent Order — an instrument devised after the drawn-out approval process for Heathrow’s Terminal 5. However, this will take at least two and a half years. The government will also have to draw up a policy statement on air capacity, which will take about a year.

Both processes will involve public consultations and opportunities for opponents to bog the proposal down in new objections. The government is also likely to face a judicial review by four west London boroughs and Windsor and Maidenhead council in Berkshire.

John Stewart, chairman of Hacan, the pressure group opposed to Heathrow expansion, says a key point could come in a year’s time, as the challenges of delivering the project become clearer.

“My feeling is that if over the next year or so it becomes apparent that a third runway will be more costly than predicted or won’t be delivered on time, the government may think again about the whole thing,” he said.

The pretty village of Harmondworth would be hit hard by the new runway
The pretty village of Harmondsworth would be hit hard by the new runway

Even if the airport succeeds in winning planning permission and buying the land by 2020, the UK will then face its biggest building project in decades. Mr Watson said this might need overseas expertise — something that may become more difficult once the UK leaves the EU. “This is a multi-year, colossal project,” he said. “You have to find people to work on it with the right experience.”

Gatwick airport, in Sussex, Heathrow’s rival to win approval for a new runway, has consistently cast doubt on whether Heathrow can raise the money or navigate the thicket of legal challenges before it.

Heathrow insists its owners — which include Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, the Québec government’s savings bank and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund — are well placed to raise the necessary financing.

“The Airports Commission’s detailed work represents a solid foundation to support a government decision for the third runway in the face of any legal challenge,” the airport said. “We are confident any judicial review would be unsuccessful and would not affect the timeline for the delivery of an additional runway at Heathrow.”

Even if the first aircraft are passing the ghosts of Harmondsworth’s pubs and churches by the intended date of 2025, however, there is little doubt that the process will be an extraordinarily complex and demanding one.

Mr Watson said the key task would be to ensure politicians, who have vacillated for years over new airport capacity, remain committed. “Provided you have consistent government support and provided you can get your head around the funding constraints, you can see it happening,” he said. “But it is a long, tough slog.”

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