A passenger plane comes into land near housing at Heathrow Airport on August 11, 2014 in London, England
Residents in Feltham are vocal opponents of a third Heathrow runway © Getty

This autumn, hundreds of thousands of rugby fans from around the globe are getting a taste of how it feels to live under the flight path of one of the busiest airports on the planet. From the stands of Twickenham Stadium, which is hosting games in the Rugby World Cup, a stream of aircraft can often be seen passing low overhead, seemingly within touching distance.

The hum of jet engines is easily drowned out by the roar of 82,000 sports fans, but for people living in south-west London, noise pollution has become an increasingly pressing concern. If Heathrow airport gets its way and builds a third runway there will be even more planes over the area, and even more full-throated opposition from residents.

There will also be an almighty political row. In the summer the Airports Commission came down in favour of Heathrow over rival proposals for Gatwick and the Thames estuary and David Cameron, the prime minister, has promised a decision by the end of the year on the third runway. It is not one that he relishes.

The history of Heathrow goes back to the second world war. The site, on the western fringes of London, was chosen in 1943 as the location for a postwar civil airport. No one then could have predicted the airport would now be handling 73.4m passengers a year.

According to Peter Jay, the economist and broadcaster, it was an arbitrary decision. In a recent letter to the FT, he wrote that his father, Douglas — later Baron — Jay, was one of six civil servants who picked Heathrow after a meeting that lasted just 40 minutes.

Critics now say Heathrow is simply in the wrong place. They include the MP Zac Goldsmith, who was selected this month as the Conservative candidate for London mayor in 2016. His Richmond Park constituency lies beneath a Heathrow flight path.

Goldsmith says the airport is now the biggest noise polluter in Europe, with an impact on 725,000 people. That figure will rise to more than 1m if a third runway is built, he argues. “The bottom line is that, politically, Heathrow expansion is undeliverable.”

Yet business groups warn that with Heathrow nearly full, Britain needs a new runway in the south-east to meet growing demand.

Let Britain Fly, a pro-aviation campaign, says the Heathrow site is the natural choice for expansion because it is the only “hub”, an interchange for flights between myriad cities around the world. Without a third runway, it argues, Heathrow will fall behind rival hubs such as Dubai, Doha and Istanbul.

“Heathrow can generate up to £211bn in GDP by 2050 and up to 180,000 jobs, directly and indirectly,” says Gavin Hayes, the lobby group’s director.

Heathrow’s north runway
Heathrow’s north runway © Bloomberg

In 2012, the last government launched an independent commission on airport expansion under Sir Howard Davies, a business grandee. Some saw the inquiry as a device designed to roll the politically divisive issue into the long grass; the Liberal Democrats and Tories could not agree on what to do.

The Airports Commission issued its report in July, recommending the third runway at Heathrow over a rival project at Gatwick in Sussex. At the same time it poured cold water on the idea of a new airport in the Thames estuary, nicknamed “Boris Island” after the Conservative London mayor, Boris Johnson, its most prominent proponent.

The commission also laid out several mitigating measures the airport could put in place to allay people’s concerns, including a ban on night flights and a new £1bn compensation fund for local residents.

In theory all David Cameron needs to do now is push the button on the Heathrow scheme. But he has his own reasons for caution, not least that he was first elected to Downing Street with a promise to fight a third runway.

In a field overrun with weeds near the airport, a spot where an apple tree once stood is a melancholy reminder of Cameron’s stance six years ago. Then, as leader of the opposition, he said he would fight the third runway, “no ifs, no buts”.

He was one of a string of politicians and entertainers who “adopted” trees in a field bought by Greenpeace, the environmental campaign group, in the middle of the proposed third runway at Sipson, a village north of Heathrow’s boundary.

At the time, Cameron was trying to modernise the Conservative party with his “Vote Blue, Go Green” agenda. Since then he has kept his counsel on Heathrow, having exchanged environmental pronouncements for a focus on economic growth and the “global race”. The land has been sold back to a local landowner.

Yet the prime minister is conscious that backing the third runway is in breach of a personal commitment, even though the project on the table is different to the 2010 version.

Pushing ahead with the scheme would also pit him against senior colleagues, from Goldsmith to a clutch of cabinet ministers such as Philip Hammond, Theresa May and Justine Greening. The mayor, meanwhile, has promised to throw himself under the bulldozers if and when construction begins.

Proceeding with the scheme would also prompt a backlash against the destruction of Harmondsworth, another village that dates back to the sixth century.

At the same time the government will face questions about the impact on air quality at the site, which lies close to the M25 and M4 motorways. Proponents argue that the aircraft of the future will produce lower emissions, yet the Supreme Court ruled in April that Britain needed to speed up its efforts to tackle air pollution, having breached EU limits.

The last Labour government chose to go ahead with the third runway, only to see that decision overturned by the courts in 2010 on environmental grounds.

Judicial reviews are again considered a certainty — including one from Gatwick, the spurned alternative. Stewart Wingate, chief executive of Gatwick, suggests the Airports Commission’s report contained so many “omissions and basic errors” that its reliability is in doubt.

But that receives short thrift from Davies. “This dossier appears to repeat many points which Gatwick made to the commission in the course of its work and which, unsurprisingly, were carefully considered,” he says.

Hayes of Let Britain Fly says “all the signs” are that the government is determined to make a positive announcement on the third runway. But he admits it is not an easy decision: “Clearly the prime minister is going to have to invest political capital in it and is going to have to show strong political leadership in order to deliver it.”

While the Davies Commission report gives the government some statistical cover to proceed with the third runway, ministers have never promised to carry out its recommendations. “If it is the wrong conclusion, we can reject it,” says Goldsmith. “We are not elected to delegate difficult decisions to other people.”

Ministers are proceeding slowly, mindful of the potential pitfalls. The prime minister will make an announcement before Christmas — indicating his chosen path — but even then there will be a new consultation. “You would criticise us if we didn’t consult on a decision this big,” says a Treasury aide.

In 1968, the government set up a commission to recommend a site for a new four-runway airport in the south-east. The Roskill panel chose Maplin Sands on the Essex shore of the Thames estuary, new laws were passed and finally, six years later, the plan was abandoned.

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