Heathrow runway finally set for take-off after UK parliament backs project

Europe’s ‘largest private project’ could still face legal challenges, including one backed by London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan.

The long-awaited construction of Heathrow Airport’s third runway took a big step forward yesterday after receiving strong backing from the UK’s parliament.

MPs voted in favour of the project by 415 votes to 119, removing one of the most significant barriers to the £14 billion ($18.5 billion; €15.9 billion) project following the UK government’s selection of the scheme in October 2016 over alternatives such as an expansion of Gatwick Airport.

Doubts had remained over the progression of the expansion in Parliament, with MPs across the political spectrum threatening to vote against the project. The backing brings an end to the political debate of the project spanning decades, with current prime minister Theresa May describing the third runway as “seriously flawed” in 2008, when she was a shadow government minister.

“Today’s decision has been years in the making and so I hope ministers move quickly to maintain the momentum now that this crucial hurdle has been cleared,” said Sir John Armitt, chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission.

Heathrow said the runway will be “the largest private project in Europe” and that it plans to sign £150 million worth of contracts in the next 12 months. Heathrow declined to comment on what debt-to-equity split it will use to finance the project.

Heathrow is owned by Ferrovial (25 percent), Qatar Holding (20 percent), Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (12.62 percent), the Singapore Investment Corporation (11.20 percent), Alinda Capital Partners (11.18 percent), China Investment Corporation (10 percent) and Universities Superannuation Scheme (10 percent).

Heathrow now must submit a development consent order application, a process set to take about 18 months and which “will provide further opportunities for residents and stakeholders to influence Heathrow’s proposal”, according to its website. The group hopes to begin construction in 2021 and open the new runway in 2026.

However, the vote was described as a “false dawn” by Liz Jenkins, infrastructure partner at law firm Clyde & Co, as the project could be delayed still by a legal battle, with London Mayor Sadiq Khan promising support to action brought by the five local authorities affected by the new runway.

“Even if Heathrow manages to navigate these obstacles, there is still the small matter of the chronic skills shortage in the construction industry, which looks set to get worse post-Brexit,” Jenkins added in a statement. “Obtaining permission to build a £14 billion runway is one thing but finding the skilled labour to build it could prove an even greater challenge.”