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Government's long-term vision for the aviation sector does not go far enough, expert warns

The Government's long-term vision for the aviation sector will put airports at the heart of local communities, Transport Secretary Justine Greening has announced.17 Jul 2012

Its draft aviation policy framework (98-page / 618KB PDF) sets out a package of measures designed to deliver operational improvements within existing airport capacity constraints, including the allocation of £500 million funding towards a new rail connection between the west and Heathrow. A separate call for evidence on future capacity will follow later in the year, "one the industry has had time to consider" the draft policy, the Government said.

"This framework aims to strike a balance between allowing the aviation industry to make the most of our current capacity, while also recognising the need for a tough regime to tackle levels of noise experienced by residents on the ground," Greening said. "London is already one of the best-connected cities in the world, but there is still an important but challenging debate to be had on how we accommodate the long-term growth of aviation. This framework provides the building blocks for this debate."

However planning and aviation expert Jonathan Riley of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that although the draft framework provided some welcome clarification it did not go far enough. The draft "falls far short of the standard of the national policy statements that exist for other vital national infrastructure," he said, such as those for energy or water projects.

"There are signs too that the Government is looking to airports to do more for local communities, whilst failing to recognise either the level of current commitments by airports or the future impact of community infrastructure levy in the planning regime," he added. "We can expect a robust response from the industry."

National Policy Statements (NPS) were introduced under the Planning Act. They set out national policy and establish the case for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) which, once designated, created a separate planning regime for specific types of major infrastructure. NPS must be considered by decision makers when considering a planning application.

The draft proposes the introduction of higher landing fees for noisier aircraft landing at unsociable hours as a way of reducing noise reduction, as well as increasing the penalties for breaching noise limits. At Heathrow, measures to improve reliability and reduce delays will be considered to allow planes to land more effectively, reducing the impact of noise for residents under the flight path.

Although many responses to the Government's pre-consultation scoping document highlighted the "considerable progress" made in reducing the number of people affected by aircraft noise, the document said that it continued to be a "real source of tension" between airports and local communities.

"If airport capacity is allowed to grow, it is essential that the aviation industry continues to tackle its noise impact in order that the benefits are shared between airports and local communities," the document said. "The Government therefore wants to establish a new policy framework which more strongly incentivises noise reduction and mitigation and also encourages between engagement between airports and local communities and greater transparency to facilitate an informed debate."

The document also encourages "further liberalisation" of the market to encourage foreign airlines to develop routes from airports other than Heathrow. It proposes extending 'fifth freedoms' – rights granted to airlines of one country to land in a different country, pick up passengers and carry them on to a third country – to Gatwick, Stansted and Luton. Foreign airlines can already apply to do so at regional airports, and there is a general presumption in favour of allowing such rights.

Business leaders and the aviation industry criticised the Government for its further delays on considering the need for future capacity. John Cridland, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said that it was "disappointing" that the Government would not be publishing its call for evidence until later in the year, saying that the UK had "no time to lose" if the country was to double its exports by 2020.

"Everyone understands this is a difficult issue, and not one with any easy answers," he said. "However, political deadlock is getting us nowhere and every day the UK is losing out to its European rivals on new routes to growing markets."

Simon Buck, chief executive of industry body the British Air Transport Association, added that it was "vital for the UK's economic prosperity" to address airport capacity. "The Government cannot keep on kicking this issue into the long grass while our competitors gain at our expense," he added.

The Government cancelled plans for a proposed third runway at Heathrow when it took office in 2009 but has acknowledged the need for an alternative, which could include a new airport in the Thames Estuary. Passenger demand for London's airports is forecast to increase from 140 million a year in 2012 to 400 million passengers a year by 2050, according to a report by the Greater London Authority.

In his Budget speech in March, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said that the UK needed to "urgently confront" its lack of airport capacity in the south east. "We cannot risk cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world," he said.

Riley said that the proposed £500m investment to build a new western rail link to Heathrow reinforced the airport's "hub status" and would be seen as a blow to supporters of the Thames Estuary airport plan.