By Agence France-Presse
Britain’s government on Tuesday gave the go-ahead to building a third runway at London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, a long-awaited decision that has stoked decades of division and debate.
“The time for action is now,” Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said after cabinet ministers approved the move, which will be put to a vote in parliament in the coming weeks.
The expansion project is highly contested, mainly over environmental and noise level concerns for a large, heavily-populated area of west London around Heathrow.
“We’ve considered these issues very carefully,” Grayling told MPs, but said it would bring huge economic benefits, particularly as Britain prepared to leave the European Union.
“Despite being the busiest two-runway airport in the world, Heathrow’s capacity constraints mean that it is falling behind its global competitors, impacting the UK’s economy and global trading opportunities,” he said.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who represents a nearby constituency, has previously opposed the plan, once pledging to lie in front of bulldozers to stop construction.
He was among several MPs in Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative party who have strong objections.
However Downing Street said MPs would be expected to support the project in a House of Commons vote expected by July 11.
The main opposition Labour party took a cautious approach, saying it would assess the environmental impact and whether the plan supported growth across Britain.
Some individual Labour MPs — and trade unions — have strongly backed the expansion because of the prospect it offers of new jobs.
‘Air pollution crisis’
The decision to build a third runway is in line with the recommendations of an independent commission but sparked condemnation from environmentalists.
Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said it was “like handing out free cigarettes on World Health Day”.
“This airstrip alone will load the atmosphere with as much extra carbon as some entire countries pump out,” he said.
“It would make Londoners’ air more dangerous to breathe, contributing to an air pollution crisis that’s already cutting short thousands of lives.
“It’s time the UK government took seriously its commitment to protect the environment by building a low-carbon economy.”
But the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Britain’s top business lobby, said it was “fantastic” news after nearly half a century of deliberations.
“Expanding our aviation capacity, and creating new flight routes to rapidly growing markets, is mission critical to ensuring Britain can compete on the post-Brexit world stage,” CBI deputy director-general Josh Hardie said.
“Our aviation capacity is set to run out as early as 2025, so it’s crucial we get spades in the ground as soon as possible.”
Grayling said the government’s decision was “an important milestone”.
“As we leave the EU, the UK must remain one of the world’s best-connected and outward-looking countries and a third runway at Heathrow is the best option to deliver this,” he said.
British Airways owner IAG, which has expressed concerns about airport charges at Heathrow, said it was a “missed opportunity”.
Chief executive Willie Walsh has told a parliamentary inquiry in February he had “zero” confidence that Heathrow could deliver the project on time and on budget.
“Today Heathrow is the most expensive hub airport in the world,” IAG said in a statement.
“The government has missed an opportunity to provide the UK with the airport it needs at a price it can afford.”
Even if it is approved by MPs, the plan could still face legal challenges from local authorities.