The Heathrow Terminal 5 inquiry - why it has taken so long and the importance of a fifth terminal

United Kingdom
Chris Williams, who has been at the inquiry since it opened in May 1995, explains why the inquiry has taken so long, and why Terminal 5 is so important

Cameron McKenna has been instructed by BAA and Heathrow Airport Limited since 1989 to advise on the project and the Heathrow Terminal 5 Inquiry is now over 400 working days old.

The proposal

The planning inquiry into Terminal 5 at Heathrow is now the UK's longest ever inquiry. On any scale (financial, engineering, or other) it is an immense project. The terminal, if it is approved by the Government, will have a capacity of approximately 30 million passengers per year, and will allow Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport, to handle approximately 80 million passengers a year by 2016. Apart from the terminal itself, the project comprises the extension of the Heathrow Express to Terminal 5, the extension of the Piccadilly underground line, and a further 20 or so associated planning applications and compulsory purchase orders. In addition, the Highways Agency is promoting road orders to provide a spur road link from the M25 to the new terminal. The total cost of the project is now estimated in the region of £1.8 billion.

The need for T5

The special significance of Terminal 5 is that it is of vital importance to Heathrow's continued position as the world's leading international airport, and hence to London's role as a world city. The leading European airports at Paris, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam are all seeking to expand their capacity to operate as European "gateway" or "hub" airports. Heathrow's leading position is constantly under threat, and in order to maintain the range and frequency of services from Heathrow which helps to keep London's position as an European and world city, Heathrow needs to expand its terminal capacity to meet its runway capacity. The extent of growth in passenger demand over the next 20 years means that Stansted and Gatwick will also need to grow, but these are not alternatives to Terminal 5.

The inquiry

In order to allow a full report to be presented to the Secretary of State who will make the final decision on whether Terminal 5 should go ahead, the inquiry has been organised into specific topics which address the national and regional importance of Heathrow; the role of aviation within the UK economy; the effect of the development on countryside, landscape, ecology, agriculture, and archaeology; transportation issues including road access, provision of railways, and public transport initiatives; aircraft noise; air quality; safety; and the way in which the terminal would be constructed. So far the inquiry has considered more than 600 proofs of evidence and other documents from major parties and received over 20,000 written statements from members of the public.

The future

There has been criticism that the inquiry has taken too long. To an extent it is inevitable that a project the size of Terminal 5 will become the subject of a lengthy inquiry, and it is a feature of the current system that all objectors are given the right to be heard, and to cross-examine. This is an important feature of the British planning inquiry system. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that the Inquiries Procedure Rules need to be reviewed so that major inquiries in future can be kept to a more manageable length. The Government is currently undertaking a review of the inquiry system, and has published consultation papers proposing ways in which inquiries can be shortened. It has to be recognised that in the vast majority of cases the inquiry system works well, but in the case of inquiries into proposals of national significance, of which Terminal 5 is a clear example, there is a need in future for inquiries to be organised with stricter time limits on the preparation and presentation of individual cases, and with specific powers being given to inspectors so that these time limits can be enforced. The system would also be improved if in the case of major projects there was a clear statement of Government policy and national need at the outset of the process, and each topic, rather than these aspects being a matter for debate during the course of the inquiry.

As far as the remaining programme for Terminal 5 goes, the inquiry is currently programmed to finish in the autumn of this year, with a final decision by the Secretary of State expected early in the year 2000.