Decision on Heathrow runway delayed

Campaigners hope credit crisis will force Government to rethink the project
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Campaigners opposing the expansion of Heathrow airport were hopeful for the first time yesterday that the Government is rethinking its support for the project, after it postponed its final decision on the addition of a third runway.

The Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon, had been expected to announce this week whether or not the Government would give the go-ahead for the construction of a third runway and sixth terminal. But Mr Hoon said that the decision would now not come until January – allowing "proper consideration" to be given to all of the 70,000 responses from two public consultations.

Local authorities, residents, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are opposed to the expansion, which would see the number of planes taking off rise from 480,000 a year to more than 700,000. The delay means prolonged uncertainty for residents of Sipson, a 700-home village which would be destroyed if the runway goes ahead.

"I know that there are strong views," said Mr Hoon. "I will ensure that I give proper consideration to the evidence and will therefore take more time before making an announcement."

Opposition has also grown on the Labour benches. A group of 50 MPs have signed a motion asking Mr Hoon to think again. The Government has backed a third runway since its White Paper on the subject in 2003.

Campaigners argue that the crisis in the aviation industry, which has seen 25 airlines go under and capacity sink dramatically this year, has also affected the argument for expanding Heathrow.

"The Government is clearly having a rethink of the decision in the light of the credit crunch, which has seen demand for air travel in the medium-term sink," said John Stewart, from the protest group Hacan opposing expansion.

Mr Hoon was attacked by members of his own party during a Commons debate on the subject last month. A group of Labour MPs also met the Prime Minister to voice their concerns.

Protests were led by Reading West MP Martin Salter, who believes that a larger Heathrow would fail to meet air quality standards set by the EU. "I'm mildly encouraged that the Government is taking the objections more seriously," he said.

"We now want to make sure that Parliament has a chance to vote on this issue before final go-ahead is given."

Some Cabinet members, including the Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, are said to be worried about the third runway's impact on emissions.

Theresa Villiers, the Shadow transport secretary, said the Government was "in disarray" over its decision.

Heathrow's operator, BAA, maintains that expansion is necessary to cope with an expected boom in demand over the next 20 years, when it predicts passenger numbers will double.

A spokesman for British Airways, a fierce supporter of expansion, said: "A rejection of the project would leave Britain without a hub airport to match the capacity of rivals in Europe and the Middle East for at least a generation."

Mr Hoon says that jobs could be lost if operators chose to use hub airports in mainland Europe over Heathrow.