MPs revolt over third Heathrow runway

• Expansion scheme faces opposition within cabinet
• Figures show significant drop in flights this winter

The case for building a third runway at Heathrow has been challenged by figures showing a significant fall in flights this winter as cabinet ministers join a Labour revolt against expanding the airport.

The number of flights to and from Heathrow will fall by 1.9% this winter compared with the same period last year, according to figures obtained by the Guardian. The reduction, equivalent to 25 fewer flights a day, was pounced on by anti-expansion campaigners, who said it undermined one of the key arguments for a third runway: that the airport is too congested.

"It means a third runway is a bit of a gamble for [Heathrow owner] BAA. The government's aviation policy was drawn up in 2003 when aviation was expanding and the economy was booming. We are now in a different world," said John Stewart, chairman of the Hacan campaign group.

According to the aviation white paper, a third runway is needed because the number of air passengers using UK airports will double to at least 460 million by 2030. A new runway would take Heathrow's capacity from 480,000 flights a year to 702,000. The overall economic benefit to the UK of expansion is put at £5bn, with tens of thousands of jobs at stake.

However, figures from the company in charge of coordinating takeoff and landing slots at Heathrow show that the schedule will reduce by 1.9% between October and March next year, due to high fuel costs and dwindling passenger demand. "This is a reflection of the high fuel prices and weakening economy leading to airlines making tactical flight cancellations," said James Cole, of Airport Coordination Ltd.

BAA said the long-term growth forecasts for aviation in the UK showed a different trend. "History very clearly demonstrates that aviation recovers well from short-term events such as this economic downturn," said a BAA spokesman.

It is also understood that a number of cabinet ministers believe agreeing to a third runway would damage the government's green credentials and cost marginal seats in the south-east. They believe ministers need to re-examine the issue in the light of the government's new commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, including emissions from aviation.

The scale of the revolt spreading across the parliamentary party prompted Gordon Brown to meet Labour MPs to discuss the issue last week and agree to hold a further meeting with them this week.

The transport secretary, Geoff Hoon, is due to make a decision next month on whether Heathrow expansion, including a sixth terminal, should go ahead, with ministers committed to the idea in principle since a white paper in 2003.

But Brown is now coming under surprisingly strong last-minute pressure to rethink his strategy by at least putting the decision on hold until after a 2010 election, possibly by proposing the government put the issue into a new national planning statement on aviation and rail.

MPs opposed to the expansion of Heathrow are reporting that they are receiving degrees of private support for their stance from Hilary Benn, the environment, food and rural affairs secretary, Ed Miliband, the new energy and climate secretary, Harriet Harman, the leader of the house, and the foreign secretary, David Miliband. Support is also coming from ministers of state.

One MP said he had spoken to three minsters who had encouraged him to think the issue needed to be re-examined.

Andy Slaughter, the MP for Ealing Acton and one of the group who met Brown last week, said: "This issue is coming to a head and in the past few weeks there are signs of a change in mood. This is a vote- changing issue for the electorate, and with the Tories and the Liberals Democrats opposed to expansion, marginal seats will be lost unless the policy is rethought.

"There has been a sense in which the government went to sleep over the issue after the aviation white paper in 2003, and yet so much has changed since then, including our policy on climate change.

"More than one million people will be affected by this decision and now is the time to look at it afresh."

So far, 41 Labour MPs from across the country have put their names to a parliamentary early day motion tabled by John Grogan, MP for Selby in North Yorkshire, calling on the government to rethink the third runway and instead start a consultation on a new national planning policy statement on airports and high-speed rail.

John McDonnell, the MP for Hayes and Harlington, said 10 to 20 Labour seats across the south-east were at risk. "If this gets the go-ahead, the government's increasingly deserved green credentials will be severely damaged."


Dan Milmo and Patrick Wintour

The GuardianTramp

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