Anti-Heathrow MPs plan to thwart government over third runway

Zac Goldsmith and John McDonnell part of coalition looking to undermine expected approval of expansion at Heathrow

An alliance of MPs opposed to the expansion of Heathrow, including the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and the Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, are plotting to undermine the anticipated government approval of a third runway.

They are set to argue that the “real decision” will only come next year, when parliament votes on a national planning statement to expand the west London airport.

Gatwick’s hopes of getting permission to increase capacity alongside Heathrow were further dented on Friday as the owner of Stansted, Manchester Airports Group (MAG), promised to mount a legal challenge if more than one runway were approved.

Heathrow and Gatwick expansion

Earlier on Friday, the former chancellor George Osborne broke his silence to back Heathrow and oppose the simultaneous construction of a runway at Gatwick.

An announcement on the location of a new runway is expected as early as Tuesday. A cross-party group of MPs and peers has already met privately to discuss tactics, with McDonnell and Goldsmith agreeing to portray the economic affairs (airports) subcommittee’s choice as only a staging post on the way to the final decision.

The opponents, who include Liberal Democrat peers and Labour and Conservative London MPs, hope that a year of public consultation, with accompanied legal challenges and heightened protests, will convince MPs that a third runway at Heathrow is undeliverable. It could also allow Goldsmith to remain an MP for longer to fight expansion, without breaking his pledge to trigger a byelection once a decision on expansion is made.

The government has not yet decided whether to hold an early poll on a pro-Heathrow motion, instead of waiting for the final vote on the national planning statement. Nor has it determined whether or not to whip Conservative MPs to back its decision. The prime minister, Theresa May, is under pressure from ministers, including the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, not to offer her backbenchers a free vote, which some believe would appear weak and create a damaging precedent.

The subcommittee, which May chairs, will meet to formally respond to the report of the airports commission, led by Sir Howard Davies, established under the coalition government more than four years ago. In July 2015, it gave a “clear and unanimous” verdict in favour of building a third runway at Heathrow, costing an estimated £17.6bn. But ministers have since almost entirely referred to Davies’ shortlist, delivered in 2013, which included a £7.1bn second runway at Gatwick, as well as the Heathrow hub scheme, an alternative £13.5bn proposal for Heathrow to expand an existing runway.

Suggestions that Heathrow and Gatwick could both be allowed to expand have been played down by ministers, with Grayling saying it would not be “legally straightforward”. The commission concluded that a second UK runway would be needed to fulfil demand by 2050.

Tim Hawkins, MAG’s corporate affairs director, told the Guardian that it would have no choice but to challenge the government, because other airports had not been given the opportunity to present their case for expansion.

Osborne’s backing for Heathrow was the most explicit endorsement from a major Westminster figure since the commission reported. He said the economic case to build at Heathrow instead of Gatwick was “overwhelming”.

Time for a decision on airports & go for Heathrow. Economic case overwhelming;connects Northern Powerhouse;ensures Britain is open to world.

— George Osborne (@George_Osborne) October 14, 2016

If we want Britain to be outward-looking,free-trading & global, we must expand the great airport that connects us to that world & that trade

— George Osborne (@George_Osborne) October 14, 2016

We can consider Gatwick expansion. But not at the expense of Heathrow - and not in parallel or else, in practice, nothing will get built.

— George Osborne (@George_Osborne) October 14, 2016

While the former chancellor has long been thought to favour Heathrow, ministers had carefully maintained the line that either of London’s biggest airports could be expanded.

Last week, Heathrow agreed a memorandum of understanding signed with the Scottish government, which gave its backing to the third runway plan in return for guarantees regarding flights.

While Britain’s busiest airport has the support of trade unions, businesses, airlines and many MPs from all parties, expansion has proved politically toxic in London, with MPs in nearby seats, including the education secretary, Justine Greening, and May representing constituents who are vehemently opposed to a new runway.

Legal challenges from surrounding councils and environmental groups are expected, as well as protests. Many in the government are thought to believe that there is an urgency to expand, especially since the Brexit vote. A consultation will follow the decision, which could highlight unresolved concerns over air quality, flight paths, surface access costs and night flights.

Gatwick has said it will stand by in readiness even if Heathrow gets the go ahead, in expectation that preparations for a new runway may again collapse before work begins.

Contributors

Gwyn Topham, Jessica Elgot and Heather Stewart

The GuardianTramp

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