The Government will today give its formal approval for the construction of a third runway and sixth terminal at Heathrow. Its support for the project had been widely expected, but the final go-ahead will be subject to strict environmental conditions.
Ed Miliband, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who has privately expressed concerns about the £9bn expansion of the west London airport, was heavily involved in formulating the deal yesterday alongside the Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon.
Mr Miliband won several concessions to allay his concerns that an expansion of aviation, the fastest growing source of carbon emissions, could make it difficult for the Government to meet its commitment of reducing carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. He bowed to pressure from the green lobby to include aviation in the target last October.
In his Commons statement, Mr Hoon will emphasise that all new take-off slots at the expanded airport must fit into a "strict emissions framework", while operators must make use of the most modern planes, which are quieter and have a reduced impact on air quality. A high-speed rail link between Heathrow and St Pancras station will also be included in the deal in an attempt to reduce traffic travelling to and from the airport. A line heading north to Birmingham and Glasgow could be added later, a project favoured by the Transport minister, Lord Adonis.
The decision to proceed with the expansion of Heathrow, which could see an extra 220,000 flights at the airport each year, has infuriated environmentalists, local campaign groups and politicians across the Commons. The Labour MP Martin Salter, who has led Labour rebels opposing the expansion, said the construction of the new runway would be "all pain and no gain" for his party. "This is a project that simply cannot be sweetened with conditions or rail links. I cannot see how on earth we will meet our environmental obligations under European law," he said. "I cannot accept that a third runway would be built and then not used."
Another Labour MP, Martin Linton, said last night that the decision would have an effect on the next general election. "People feel strongly enough to vote on this in the surrounding constituencies," he said. "This will have an effect." John Stewart, the chair of the Hacan group opposing expansion, said the decision "flies in the face of the facts", and signalled that legal action against expansion was now on the horizon. "We believe we have won the environmental, social and economic arguments against expansion," he said.
"People will fight the Government in the courts, in their communities, in the town halls and, if necessary, on the tarmac of Heathrow Airport. All the warm words in the world about high-speed rail and environmental safeguards will not hide the fact that the Government has decided to give the green light to expansion."
The shadow Transport Secretary, Theresa Villiers, said: "Gordon Brown is deaf to the concerns of his own party and millions of people living under the flight path. A third runway at Heathrow would be an environmental disaster and will prove that you cannot trust a word Gordon Brown says on climate change and pollution."
Doubts over a third runway at Heathrow were still lingering in the minds of some Cabinet ministers yesterday. An ill-tempered Cabinet discussion of the issue finished unresolved on Tuesday morning. One Cabinet member told The Independent yesterday: "The economic and environmental arguments are pointing in completely opposite directions. We have got to find a way of bringing them together." Another said: "I support the third runway on economic grounds, but I still need to see more guarantees on its environmental impact."
The Prime Minister refused to promise MPs a vote on the issue during Prime Minster's Questions yesterday. He told the Commons that after the Government's formal announcement is made, "there will be a debate in the questions that follow". He also reassured them any third runway plans would be subject to a planning inquiry.
But his assurance was labelled as "hypocritical" by the Liberal Democrat MP Susan Kramer, because Mr Brown's government had introduced the planning Bill to speed through favoured planning schemes by limiting local opposition. "Gordon Brown has introduced a Bill specifically designed to circumvent current planning law and force a third runway through," she said.
She also accused Mr Brown of using a loophole – stating that a vote on aviation policy took place in 2006 – to avoid a Commons vote. "He needs to stop relying on a vote taken two years ago and allow us to have our say. The environmental and economic cases for Heathrow expansion have entirely changed since then," she said.
The Government would struggle to win a vote, with both opposition parties opposed to a third runway. They could be joined by more than 50 rebel Labour MPs who signed a parliamentary motion opposed to the scheme. A defeat would be embarrassing for the Government, although it would be under no obligation to revise its decision.
John Randall, the Tory MP who raised the issue of Heathrow at PMQs, said: "The Government is clearly backing away from the vote because it realises at this stage it could not win it."
Third runway: Countdown to take-off
December 2003: Then Transport Secretary Alistair Darling says a third runway will be built provided environmental targets are met.
December 2006: the Department for Transport signals its support.
August 2007: A largely peaceful protest is marred by a pitched battle between demonstrators and police.
November 2007: a public consultation is launched. Protesters complain of "collusion" with BAA.
July 2008: a decision is delayed by Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly until the end of the year.
January 14, 2009: News leaks that the plan is to be approved today.
2015: After the expected legal wranglings, actual construction work is due to get underway.
2019/20: The first planes should be touching down on runway three.