Third Heathrow Runway Backed by British Government
LONDON — After decades of delay, the British government endorsed the expansion of London’s Heathrow Airport on Tuesday. The decision to build a third runway at the airport provoked a ferocious response that illustrated why a succession of politicians have ducked the issue since the 1970s.
The announcement was meant to end years of political paralysis over aviation planning in southeast England, where Heathrow is now operating at 98 percent of its capacity, causing Britain to lose ground to Continental European air hubs.
But the decision announced on Tuesday by Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, is just the start of a lengthy process that is sure to face legal challenges. It also presents Theresa May, the new prime minister who has opposed a Heathrow expansion in the past, with a crucial political test.
The government has bought some time by delaying a parliamentary vote on the matter until next year. Two of Mrs. May’s cabinet ministers — Justine Greening, the education secretary, and Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary — oppose the project; Mr. Johnson called it “undeliverable.”
Zac Goldsmith, another lawmaker from the governing Conservative Party, said he was resigning his parliamentary seat in protest of the decision. The move will prompt a special election, in which Mr. Goldsmith said he would run as an independent, and reduces the Conservatives’ already slim majority in the House of Commons.
Mr. Goldsmith, a strong environmental campaigner who lost the contest this year to become the mayor of London, called the runway decision “catastrophic,” but also said that the project “is almost certainly not going to be delivered.”
Caroline Lucas, a Green Party lawmaker, said that the government could not expand Heathrow if it “is remotely serious about climate targets.”
Mr. Grayling acknowledged that, given the consultation process that the project must undergo, the new runway would not be open for nine years.
Still, he insisted that the expansion was vital to Britain’s prosperity. And the government has sought to present the expansion as a symbol of the economic self-confidence of an outward-looking trading nation, after the referendum vote in June to quit the European Union.
“A new runway at Heathrow will improve connectivity in the U.K. itself and crucially boost our connections with the rest of the world, supporting exports, trade and job opportunities,” Mr. Grayling said in a statement. “This isn’t just a great deal for business, it’s a great deal for passengers who will also benefit from access to more airlines, destinations and flights.”
British governments invariably struggle to deliver big infrastructure projects, from airport expansion to high-speed rail. Because of its location, Heathrow is a particularly toxic issue and arguments about its expansion have raged since the 1970s, when a government document described its capacity as “restricted.”
Part of the problem is down to history: Heathrow began life in an era when the scale of modern aviation could not be imagined. Located to the west of central London, its busy flight paths cross many residential districts, and the parliamentary constituencies of influential politicians.
They include Mr. Johnson, a former mayor of London, whose opposition to a new runway is so vehement that he has said that he will lie down in front of the bulldozers to prevent its construction. On Tuesday, he said that “the day when the bulldozers appear is a long way off, if indeed they ever materialize.”
Acknowledging the strength of feeling in her government, Mrs. May gave ministers like Mr. Johnson the freedom to oppose the government’s decision — at least for a time — and pushed back a parliamentary vote on the project, probably for a year.
Political sensitivities had paralyzed decision making on the plan by David Cameron, who resigned as prime minister after Britain’s surprise decision, in the June 23 referendum, to leave the European Union.
Three main options had been under consideration: building a third runway at Heathrow; extending one of its existing runways; or building a second runway at Gatwick Airport, which is to the south of London.
Gatwick, with its single runway, has half the traffic of Heathrow. The main European rivals as hub airports already have more runways than Heathrow: Schiphol in Amsterdam has six; Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle in Paris each have four.
A Heathrow expansion is not a cheap option, financially or politically. It comes with a price tag of 18 billion pounds — around $22 billion — and will involve the demolition of hundreds of homes.
But Heathrow has been considered the most viable option, because of the surrounding infrastructure and because it is already a global aviation hub and the biggest handler of cargo.
It emerged as the top choice in a report by Sir Howard Davies, the chairman of the Airports Commission, who concluded that a new northwest runway for Heathrow was a much better alternative for expansion than a new runway at Gatwick, both for passengers and freight.
On Tuesday, Mr. Grayling’s department said the new runway at Heathrow will bring economic benefits to passengers and the wider economy worth up to £61 billion. Up to 77,000 additional local jobs are expected to be created over the next 14 years, it said in a statement.
“The country has waited nearly 50 years for this decision,” said Paul Drechsler, the president of the Confederation of British Industry.
He called the proposal a relief, adding, “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.”
The expansion, he said, “will provide not only a welcome economic stimulus but will show the world that we are well and truly open for business as we negotiate our exit from the E.U.”
Olivier Jankovec, the director general of ACI Europe, a trade association of European airports, said the announcement “brings us closer to the end of one of the longest, most publicly consulted infrastructure planning processes anywhere in the world.”
“An island economy lives or dies by its air connectivity,” he added. “If the U.K. government is serious about its focus on economic growth and preserving the country’s global positioning, it needs to truly embed air connectivity and sustainable airport development in its economic strategy.”
Opponents vowed to fight on. Tania Mathias, the Conservative member of Parliament for Twickenham in southwest London, near Heathrow, said she was “certain” the expansion would not happen.
“The scrutiny and consultation over the next year will, I am sure, show that a third runway is simply not possible for economic, legal and environmental reasons,” she said in a statement.
“The initial reaction of people living under the flight path is one of despair and desolation,” added John Stewart, the chairman of Hacan ClearSkies, a group representing west London residents who are against any expansion of Heathrow.
But opponents said they saw Mrs. May’s decision to postpone a parliamentary vote on the plan as a chance that powerful politicians like Mr. Johnson would continue to press for alternatives.
“There are political allies for us at the very highest levels,” Mr. Stewart said.