Gatwick is surprise option for expansion

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The Independent Online

Gatwick, not Heathrow, is expected to emerge as the surprise second option for the construction of extra runway capacity in a long-awaited White Paper on air travel due for publication tomorrow.

Gatwick, not Heathrow, is expected to emerge as the surprise second option for the construction of extra runway capacity in a long-awaited White Paper on air travel due for publication tomorrow.

The document will suggest that a second landing strip at the Sussex airport could follow the expected expansion at Stansted in Essex, according to sources close to the decision-making process. Ministers have concluded that Gatwick may be the best option for the second stage of development, although they will still need to persuade the aviation industry to fund increased capacity over the next decade at Stansted.

Residents in the Gatwick area, who thought they had escaped expansion, will be shocked and angry over any suggestion that their airport will become considerably busier. The document comes to no hard and fast decision over Gatwick, but people in the vicinity will be deeply concerned that it is back on the agenda.

One source said the Government was aware that an additional runway at Stansted would not be sufficient to meet the increasing demand for flights and so ministers need to look elsewhere. The White Paper will point out that air travel is likely to rise threefold over the next 30 years and that at least two runways in the South-east could be required.

The Government is aware that expansion at Gatwick cannot take place until the expiry in 2019 of a legal agreement signed by the airports operator, BAA.

The policy paper will suggest that until aircraft become significantly quieter and cleaner, a third runway at Heathrow would place an unacceptable burden on the residents of that part of west London, which is also home to the M25 and the M4, two of Britain's busiest motorways.

The Government believes that an extra runway at Heathrow would breach a more stringent European law on pollution due to come into effect in 2010. Ministers have also been warned that they would face a legal minefield if they attempted fresh construction at Heathrow. Government lawyers have advised them that they might not be able to prove "a compelling case in the public interest'' needed for compulsory purchase orders for the hundreds of houses in the way of the development.

Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, will back a substantial increase in flights over the next three decades, but will set out a number of "green tax'' options to minimise the environmental impact. As a gesture to airlines calling for an extra runway at Heathrow, it is thought the Government will undertake a review of restrictions on the use of the airport which would lead to a modest increase in its overall capacity.

The decision to place Heathrow on the back burner means that a campaign by all sides of the aviation industry has failed. It also means that Number 10, which argued that there were too many sensitive marginal constituencies in the area, has prevailed over the Treasury, which contended that the economic arguments in favour of expanding Heathrow were overwhelming.

Gatwick was originally ruled out as an option because of the legal agreement banning expansion and it was not included in an initial consultation process. However, a court ruled that such an exclusion was unlawful and the process was scrapped. A second attempt to seek views on the issue, with Gatwick included in the equation, ended earlier this year.

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