Councils opposed to a third London runway threatened legal action yesterday after Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, provoked fury by signalling a massive expansion of Heathrow.
Environment groups accused Gordon Brown of hypocrisy for claiming to be leading the world in combating climate change four days before consulting on an expansion of aviation in his own backyard.
The Government's plans were backed in a move that appeared to be co-ordinated by all sides of the pro-expansion lobby, including unions, the CBI, chambers of commerce and the airlines. But ministers may find the threats of legal action against "sham" consultation more worrying.
Serge Lourie, the Liberal Democrat leader of Richmond council, which is under the Heathrow flightpath, said that his authority would be seeking legal advice on a possible judicial review against Ms Kelly for announcing consultation on a plan to allow the third runway after already having said that it was vital for the economy.
"It's a disgrace that Ruth Kelly is saying she is consulting on something that she has already made clear she supports. She is leaving herself wide open to a legal challenge," said Mr Lourie. The Wandsworth council leader, Edward Lister, speaking on behalf of the 2M Group that represents 12 local authorities in the Heathrow area, said: "The Government is asking us to trust that, by the time the runway is built, there will be an entirely new fleet of quieter aircraft flying.
"They are so hell-bent on expansion that they are not stopping to count the environmental costs. They will not even take into account their own noise study, which they had promised would be used to underpin government policy."
The consultation covers a sixth terminal, changes to runway take-off and landing patterns, and changes to the routes that Heathrow aircraft take. The public has until 27 February next year to make its views known.
Ms Kelly said that unless the third runway was built by 2020, Heathrow's status as a world-class airport would be eroded, jobs would be lost and the economy would suffer. The consultation document said that a third runway would bring net economic benefit of around £5bn. Ms Kelly claimed that the expansion could be completed within acceptable noise and pollution targets.
Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, said: "If airlines want to fly more, they will have to pay for emissions reductions in other industries – so overall carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will not rise because of a third runway."
Steve Ridgway, the chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said: "Limiting growth at Heathrow wouldn't prevent climate change because that growth would only go elsewhere."
But Peter Lockley, the head of transport policy at the conservation group WWF, said: "The expansion of Heathrow is completely at odds with the Government's climate change targets, and there are alternatives – such as video conferencing and high-speed train travel." The London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, said: "I am firmly opposed to this expansion of Heathrow airport as it runs contrary to all the growing evidence we now have on the impact of aviation on climate change."
The Liberal Democrat transport spokeswoman, Susan Kramer, said: "Given the need to greatly reduce carbon emissions, the last thing that ministers should be doing is doubling the capacity of a major airport."
The Tories did not oppose the Heathrow expansion plan, despite their claims to green credentials. The Tory party spokesperson, Theresa Villiers, said: "We recognise that the economic arguments for expanding Heathrow are much stronger than any other airport in the South-east but... Ruth Kelly has got some very tough questions to answer about Heathrow expansion."
She said that four tests must be met before the go-ahead: on pollution, on noise, on alternative ways to meet demand, and above all, on meeting Britain's climate change targets.
Mike Russell, 53: 'My quality of life will be disrupted'
Mike Russell, 53, from north Chiswick, already experiences the unpleasant noise of aircraft from Heathrow passing near his home, but if the third runway goes ahead, his house will be directly beneath the flight path. He has lived with his wife and two children in Chiswick since 1980, and says the noise from the airport is becoming unbearable. "When I first moved into Chiswick there were planes going over, but by no means with the same intensity as now. I had no idea Heathrow would expand so much, and I remember them saying in the past that there'd be no fourth terminal, no fifth terminal, and – of course – no third runway. BAA has lied consistently over the years. We already hear planes when they use the north runway, which is a significant disruption. It's not too bad inside, but when we're in the garden you can hear a plane about every 45 seconds in peak time. You get used to it in the way you get used to a headache, but that's by no means ideal, and when friends come over they always ask how we get used to it. Once the third runway is built, with the flight path over our house, it will be very noisy and it will definitely affect my sleep. It will be very intrusive, but the people who really have to move out are the poor ones whose houses will need to be demolished. I've heard that BAA are offering to double-glaze houses in Kew to help with the noise, so maybe they'll do that for us. It certainly shows that they're aware of the intrusion this noise has into people's lives, and that they're admitting there will be further noise and disruption. I rarely fly myself and my entire family went to the Heathrow climate camp. I'm very annoyed that my quality of life will be disrupted by someone putting in a runway and profiting at my expense."Reuse content