Britain’s government on Tuesday gave the go-ahead to building a third runway at London Heathrow, Europe’s biggest airport by passenger numbers, a long-awaited decision that has stoked decades of division and debate.
“The time for action is now,” Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said after a cabinet meeting, as he laid out the controversial plan in parliament, which will vote on it in the coming weeks.
“This is a decision taken in the national interest,” he added.
The expansion project is highly contested, mainly over environmental and noise level concerns for a large area of west London around Heathrow.
“We’ve considered these issues very carefully,” Grayling told lawmakers under questioning. “But the other thing we have to take into account is the potential for our economy.”
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who represents a nearby constituency, has previously opposed the plan, once pledging to lie in front of bulldozers to stop building.
It is unclear whether he and other lawmakers from the ruling Conservative Party will be allowed a free vote on the project.
Conservative former transport secretary Justine Greening insisted she would vote against the expansion — and urged the government to allow lawmakers to vote freely on the issue.
“These are local MPs who need to represent our local communities,” she told the BBC.
Although other Conservative MPs are also against the expansion, some opposition Labour lawmakers vocally backed the move in parliament.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said Labour will consider the proposal against four tests, including if environmental issues can be fully addressed and growth across the country is supported.
The parliamentary vote must take place by July 11, according to the Department for Transport.
‘Air pollution crisis’
Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said: “Green-lighting a new runway at Heathrow on World Environment Day is 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. 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 big business lobby, voiced strong support for the project.
CBI deputy director-general Josh Hardie said: “It’s fantastic that the new runway at Heathrow is getting closer to take-off. All the more so as the United Kingdom has waited for nearly half a century for this decision.
“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.
“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,” he said.
Grayling said the government’s decision was “an important milestone in building a global Britain”.
“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, whose chief executive Willie Walsh told a parliamentary inquiry in February he had “zero” confidence that Heathrow could deliver the project on time and on budget, called the decision a “missed opportunity”.
“Today Heathrow is the most expensive hub airport in the world,” it 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.”