Airport expansion debate postponed for second time

Runways at Heathrow Airport New airports in the south east of England are ruled out in the coalition agreement

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The coalition has delayed consultation over expanding airports in south-east England, amid reports of disagreements on how to go ahead.

Options, including extra runways at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted and proposals to build a new airport on the Thames Estuary, are now unlikely to be dealt with until later in the year.

It is the second time a consultation on aviation has been postponed.

Businesses say expansion is vital, but green groups argue it will be damaging.

The consultation was meant to start in March, but was then delayed until the summer, and is now unlikely to go ahead until the autumn.

Transport Secretary Justine Greening - in line with official Conservative policy - opposes a third runway at Heathrow, as do the Liberal Democrats.

The coalition agreement between the two parties rules out new airports in the region.

'Challenging'

But there are reports Chancellor George Osborne and other Conservative MPs, are warming to the idea of a third Heathrow runway - with speculation that this is the reason the consultation has been postponed again.

BBC transport correspondent Richard Westcott says those supporters of Heathrow expansion within the government have been accused of trying to delay everything until after the next election.

EXPANSION STORY SO FAR

  • 2003 - Labour government lays out plans for third runway at Heathrow
  • 2009 - Scheme approved by Labour government
  • 2010 - Coalition scraps Heathrow plans and rules out extra runways at Gatwick or Stansted
  • May 2011 - London Mayor Boris Johnson backs airport in Thames Estuary
  • November 2011 - Architect Lord Foster announces separate scheme for Thames Estuary airport
  • Airports consultation meant to start in March, but delayed until summer, and then until autumn

The Conservatives would no longer be covered by their 2010 manifesto pledge to scrap plans for Heathrow expansion.

Ms Greening did not include details of the consultation on south-east England's airports when she issued a written statement to MPs on Thursday.

However, she announced:

  • £500m towards a western rail link to Heathrow, to speed up journeys to and from Wales and south-west England
  • Proposals to "further liberalise" UK aviation, including extending the ability of Gatwick and Stansted to handle passengers in transit to other destinations
  • Increasing competition between airlines and train companies
  • Plans to make sure airlines are awarded flight slots in most "economically beneficial" way to UK
  • Limiting access of smaller planes to busiest airports to encourage more efficient transport of large passenger numbers

Ms Greening added that issues such as maximising the use of existing airport capacity and reducing sound from aircraft would be looked at ahead of the full consultation on airports in the South East.

She 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 and I look forward to working with the industry, residents and other interested parties on this once they have had the chance to consider these measures."

The prime minister's spokesman insisted: "We will get on with this. These are important long-term decisions and we need to get them right. What today's announcement does is set out the context for the call for evidence."

He added: "It is important that we take decisions in the light of the evidence."

Proposals for a third runway at Heathrow, or extra runways at Gatwick or Stansted, are proving hugely controversial.

Businesses insist expansion is vital, or the UK will suffer an economic disadvantage.

Mike Carrivick, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK, said: "Delaying important decisions until later in the year demonstrates a lack of courage and the paralysis afflicting strategic policy-making within the government."

'Devastating'

Adam Marshall, director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "The government has spent years working on a strategy for UK aviation, so reports that there will be yet more delays beggar belief.

"Businesses are tired of indecision and equivocation on aviation. Ministers can't tell businesses to look for new opportunities in emerging markets like Brazil and China, and then fail to provide the basic infrastructure needed to get there."

FOR AND AGAINST

  • Supporters of Heathrow expansion include: British Chambers of Commerce, Airlines, CBI, Tory MPs Matthew Hancock, Jesse Norman and Nadhim Zahaw
  • Opponents include: Liberal Democrats, Transport Secretary Justine Greening, London Mayor Boris Johnson, Tory MP Zac Goldsmith, Friends of the Earth, Labour MP John McDonnell

Environmentalists have raised concerns over the impact of airport expansion on the countryside, levels of noise pollution and the effect on people's quality of life.

Friends of the Earth's head of campaigns Andrew Pendleton said: "The reality is we don't need more airport capacity in the South East. London already has more flights to the world's top business centres than any of its European competitors.

"Building more airports or runways will have a devastating impact on local communities and our environment and undermine UK efforts to tackle climate change."

Conservative Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston, in south-west London, and a well known environmentalist, has said he will quit his party if it supports a third runway.

Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson also opposes expansion at Heathrow, but has campaigned for a new airport in the Thames Estuary which has been nicknamed "Boris Island".

A £50bn project to build an airport east of London has been put forward by architect Lord Foster.

The Labour Party favoured a third runway at Heathrow when in government. The party is currently reviewing its transport policy and is yet to say whether or not it still backs expansion of the airport.

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