Opponents vow to fight plan for third runway

Coalition of opposition parties, protesters and green groups warn Brown over 'unwanted' airport expansion

The Government was warned last night that it faced a long and bitter struggle to secure the expansion of Heathrow after giving the go-ahead to controversial plans for a third runway.

Environmental groups dismissed a string of last-minute concessions won by cabinet ministers who had doubts about the £9bn project. Opponents said Gordon Brown's reputation on green issues was in tatters. He has personally forced through the scheme, despite warnings from some allies that it could cost Labour several west London seats at the general election and boost the green credentials of the Conservatives, who oppose it.

The runway and planned sixth terminal could allow the number of flights from Heathrow to rise from 480,000 to 702,000 a year by 2030. But the expansion faces a series of formidable hurdles if it is to be delivered on schedule by 2018-2020 – and may never be built. The obstacles include:

* A Commons vote by the end of this month;

* Legal action by the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to halt the project;

* A pledge by the Tories to scrap the plan if they win the next election;

* Action by protesters, including the buying of land needed for the runway;

* A public inquiry if, as expected, the London Borough of Hounslow rejects planning permission for the project.

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Transport, sparked protests in the Commons when he gave the runway the Government's formal approval yesterday. John McDonnell, the Labour MP whose Hayes and Harlington constituency includes Heathrow, condemned the plan as a "disgrace to democracy" and grabbed the mace, the symbol of the Queen's authority in Parliament. He was suspended from the chamber for five days.

About 50 Labour MPs oppose the expansion. Although the Government has denied members a formal vote, the Liberal Democrat MP Susan Kramer will force a symbolic division by bringing in a backbench Bill this month. Andy Slaughter, the Labour MP for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, may resign as a parliamentary private secretary in protest at the decision. He said: "I met the Prime Minister today to discuss things and am going to go away and consider my position. I have not decided what to do yet."

Mr Hoon, who faced fierce criticism from all parties, pledged that the number of flights would not be allowed to rise by more than an initial 125,000 unless the aircraft industry brought in new designs to cut emissions so that, by 2050, aircraft pollution would be lower than it was in 2005. This, he said, would give Britain "the toughest climate change regime for aviation" in the world. He also announced plans to build a new high-speed rail line from Heathrow to London St Pancras, which could be extended to the Midlands, and pleased environment groups by abandoning proposals for all-day take-offs and landings on the two existing runways.

Ministers presented the scheme as vital to Britain's future, saying it would generate £5.5bn for the economy and create 6,000 permanent jobs and 60,000 during the construction. But Theresa Villiers, the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, warned building companies not to sign contracts. She said: "Make no mistake: we will find a way of stopping this from happening. Anyone out there thinking about signing up to this does so at their own risk."

Having taken legal advice, the Conservatives are convinced that an incoming government would have the power to scrap all contracts agreed between the airports operator BAA and its sub-contractors, although compensation might have to be paid.

Trade unions and business leaders welcomed the expansion but critics were unimpressed by the Government's concessions. Environmental groups were united in denouncing the plans. At a joint press conference, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and even the sedate National Trust joined local protest groups, activists and councils to condemn the decision and to pledge to fight to reverse it.

David Nussbaum, the chief executive of WWF-UK, said: "In the war on climate change, the Government has just started torpedoing its own policies." Andy Atkins, the executive director of Friends of the Earth, said: "They have shot themselves in the foot."

Graham Wynne, chief executive of the RSPB, said: "It is crazy. I equate it to a drug addict trying to explain to you why it is justifiable to have one more fix – the fix here being carbon."

Comments