Long-delayed UK airport plan to finally take off, with government backing Heathrow expansion

In a toss-up with Gatwick, Theresa May’s cabinet has decided to make Britain’s biggest airport even bigger

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 5:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 10:53pm

Britain’s government has backed plans to build a new runway at London’s Heathrow Airport despite opposition from senior cabinet ministers.

“This is a really big decision for this country but it’s also the clearest sign post the referendum that this country is very clearly open for business,” Transport Minister Chris Grayling told reporters.

Prime Minister Theresa May has ended decades of indecision by planning to expand Europe’s busiest airport, a project made more pressing by the vote to leave the EU.

May and a small team of ministers met on Tuesday to choose between expanding Heathrow, to the west of London, or Gatwick, to the south – making a decision on airport expansion after more than 25 years of debate.

Key opponents of Heathrow expansion were not be present. They included Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who said last year when he was London mayor that it would not solve capacity issues and was doomed to fail.

Both airports are running at close to full capacity and big business argues that Britain needs a new runway to build trade ties and better compete with Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam.

There were three options on the table – a new runway at Heathrow, lengthening one of its existing two runways, or a new runway at Gatwick – the new Heathrow runway was the more ambitious and expensive option.

In 2015, a three-year independent inquiry set up by the government recommended that option, subject to a list of conditions over night flights, noise and air quality.

Last week May took the rare step of promising colleagues who oppose the decision that they would be allowed to publicly air their views.

The airport decision is one of May’s biggest moves since she became prime minister in July and contrasts with the delaying tactics of her predecessor, David Cameron, who failed to act after having withdrawn a previous government’s approval to expand Heathrow in 2010.

The decision will be subject to public consultation before it is put to a vote in parliament in late 2017 or early 2018. Surveys show a majority of lawmakers back Heathrow expansion.

Five local councils around Heathrow including Maidenhead, the area May represents, have hired a law firm to fight Heathrow expansion. Other opposition groups have also said they are likely to consider legal action against a new runway there.

The Heathrow project could also face legal challenges over its environmental impact on densely populated west London. But its established trade links with emerging markets strengthened its case in the wake of the Brexit vote. It also had the backing of the major airlines.

Gatwick, the country’s no. 2 airport that mostly connects to Europe, argued it could build a runway more quickly and, at US$9 billion, more cheaply, and that its rural position means it would disturb fewer people.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, Howard Davies, head of the independent inquiry which backed Heathrow, said Brexit had made the case for Heathrow “overwhelming” given it handles more air freight and a greater number of long-haul inbound tourism.

Additional reporting by AFP