As local politics once again supplant the national debate about international connectivity, UK business has responded furiously to a further delay in assigning a new runway for London.
The Government has deferred any decision about where to build extra aviation capacity until after the London Mayoral elections in May 2016 - by which time two-runway Heathrow will have celebrated its 70th birthday.
In 2012 David Cameron set up the Airports Commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, to recommend the best solution to South-east England’s capacity crunch.
Two years ago, Sir Howard narrowed the choice to two Heathrow options - a third runway or an extended northern runway - or a second runway at Gatwick.
Last July, the Davies Commission recommended a third runway at Heathrow, with “a comprehensive package of accompanying measures which would make the airport’s expansion more acceptable to its local community”.
On the same day, the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, said: “We will come back to Parliament in the autumn to provide clear direction on the government’s plans.”
But he insisted more time was needed, saying: “It’s vitally important we get the decision right so that it will benefit generations to come. We will undertake more work on environmental impacts, including air quality, noise and carbon.”
No decision is expected for six months, by which time the new London Mayor will be known. The Tory candidate, Zak Goldsmith, had vowed to resign as MP for Richmond Park if a third runway at Heathrow goes ahead.
The CBI Director-General, Carolyn Fairbairn, called the postponement "deeply disappointing", and said: "The Airports Commission spent three years analysing impartial evidence, at a cost of £20 million. We cannot fall into the habit of simply commissioning new evidence, instead of the Government taking the tough decisions needed at the end of the process."
Gavin Hayes, Director of Let Britain Fly, said: "The Prime Minister has yet again decided to put short-term political interests before the long-term national interest and kicked the can down the road for another six months.
"This latest fudge is all about political expediency, not about doing what is right for our economy."
Campaigners against expansion at Heathrow claimed the move showed a third runway is undeliverable. John Stewart, chair of HACAN, said: "The Government should face up to the reality that a third runway is unlikely ever to see the light of day."
The Transport Secretary’s announcement was welcomed by Gatwick’s chief executive. Stewart Wingate said: "There is now a clear choice facing Britain: growth with Gatwick or inertia at Heathrow with an illegal scheme that has failed time and time again. Expansion at Gatwick would give the country the economic benefit it needs at a dramatically lower environmental cost."
This year London will set a new global record for the number of passengers flying in and out of a single city. The total will exceed 150m for the first time, way ahead of its nearest rival, New York. But no new full-length runway has been built since Heathrow opened in January 1946.
The announcement moves the airport debate back to where it was a quarter-century ago. In 1990, the Conservative Government set up a study into "Runway Capacity to Serve the South East". Three years later, it concluded that "Benefits to passengers would justify a further runway at Heathrow or Gatwick by 2010" so long as surface access to airports and improved public transport links were properly examined.
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