The long-awaited report by a Department of Transport working party says new runway capacity to cater for a forecast tripling passenger numbers to 170 million early next century, should be built at one of Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted or Luton.
But it also concludes that the extra runway will not be needed until 2010 at the earliest - five years later than previous DoT estimates - and possibly not until 2015. This is because of the extra terminal capacity being built, the introduction of larger aircraft and the expected increase in use of regional airports.
According to the 200-page study, a third runway at Heathrow would provide the greatest benefit to passengers but it would also inflict the greatest environmental harm. The villages of Harmondsworth, Harlington, Longford and Sipson, covering 3,300 houses, would need to be razed, and more than 7,000 people rehoused. In addition, 42 listed buildings would need to be demolished and an additional 141,000 residents near Heathrow affected by aircraft noise.
Developing another runway at Gatwick would only involve the demolition of 100 houses, but would leave the Surrey village of Charlwood, with 1,146 residents and 42 listed buildings, marooned between two runways and uninhabitable, and cause noise disturbance for an extra 7,700 to 30,000 people. The runway would also carve a path through a Site of Special Scientific Interest and 49 hectares of ancient woodland.
At Stansted, about 80 houses would need to be demolished while an additional 8,200 people would be subjected to be noise disturbance. Another SSSI, Hatfield Forest, would be severely affected as would an ancient woodland a mile from the existing runway. But the main impact on the Essex landscape would be the need to build 32,000 new homes to accommodate an enlarged airport staff.
Extending the existing runway at Luton airport, by far the lowest-cost option of the four, would not result in houses being demolished but would delay the need for expansion elsewhere by only three years.
The report says that even with no new runway in the South-east, passenger numbers are likely to rise from 69 million last year to about 170 million by 2015. With a new runway, the figure could reach 195 million.
An extra runway at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted would be able to handle 40 million extra passengers while extending Luton's runway would increase capacity by 10 million.
The working party examined the option of expanding smaller regional airports or even building an entirely new airport in the Thames estuary, but concluded that only the four existing major South-east airports could handle the forecast levels of demand.
The Government is seeking responses to the report by next June but ministers are unlikely to have to decide which airport they favour for a new runway until 1995 at the earliest.
Runway Capacity to Serve the South East; Department of Transport; pounds 5.Reuse content