Proposals to expand Heathrow politically divisive, to fuel tensions

London mayor Boris Johnson speaking on the phone yesterday as he gathered with other MPs who oppose the expansion of Heathrow airport. Photo: Paul Hackett/ReutersLondon mayor Boris Johnson speaking on the phone yesterday as he gathered with other MPs who oppose the expansion of Heathrow airport. Photo: Paul Hackett/Reuters

Britain should build a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, a government-appointed commission into the country’s airport capacity said in a report set to create a political headache for Prime Minister David Cameron.

Lawmakers broadly agree that southeast England needs a new runway to remain economically competitive but its location has been disputed for over 25 years. Proposals to expand Heathrow in densely-populated west London are politically divisive and likely to fuel tensions in the ruling Conservative party.

After a three-year study, the Airports Commission, as expected, selected a new runway at Heathrow over two other shortlisted options, arguing that it offered Britain the best way to add “urgently required” long-haul routes to new markets.

“Heathrow... provides the greatest benefits for business passengers, freight operators and the broader economy,” the commission’s chairman, Howard Davies, said yesterday.

It is now up to the government to decide whether to accept the Heathrow option that Cameron, when in opposition in 2009, said would not happen under his watch, “no ifs, no buts”.

The Heathrow recommendation was accompanied by a package of measures to limit the noise and environmental impact of a new runway.

A previous expansion plan for Britain’s busiest airport was scrapped in 2010. The new proposal was described by the Airports Commission as “fundamentally different”, citing its more westerly location and accompanying conditions to ban night flights and introduce a noise levy, and a government pledge not to add more runways later.

Heathrow’s largest shareholder is Spanish infrastructure firm Ferrovial.

Other partners include Qatar Holding, China Investment Corp. and the Government of Singapore Investment Corp.

Businesses and airlines had largely favoured the expansion of Heathrow, which is operating at 98 per cent capacity, over Gatwick, south of London.

Britain is already falling behind European rivals, argue businesses. Heathrow has two runways and Gatwick one, compared with four at Charles de Gaulle in Paris and six at Amsterdam’s Schiphol.

Heathrow has estimated that building could start in 2020

Davies urged the government to realise that a decision on Heathrow was needed to protect Britain’s reputation as an open economy.

“As we’ve gone around the world we’ve found that it’s become a rather symbolic point,” he told the BBC. “Is London prepared to make the decisions it needs to become a global city?”

The report estimated that the new runway would cost £17.6 billion plus £5 billion in additional access costs.

A number of high-profile Conservative politicians, including Mayor of London Boris Johnson, have opposed an additional runway at Heathrow. Johnson called the recommendation “disappointing” on Twitter yesterday, adding that the third runway would “never” be built.

Transport Minister Patrick McLoughlin said in a statement that he would consider the commission’s recommendation.

“As a nation we must be ambitious and forward looking. This is a once in a generation opportunity to answer a vital question,” he said.

Gatwick, which is run by investment group Global Infrastructure Partners, said it believed that it was still in the race.

“We are confident that when the government makes that decision they will choose Gatwick as the only deliverable option,” Gatwick CEO Stewart Wingate said in a statement.

Heathrow has estimated that building could start in 2020 and the new runway would be ready in 2025, but that could be held up by the government’s decision and tough planning laws.

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