Labour has softened its opposition to expansion at Heathrow Airport despite Ed Miliband’s previous hostility to the building of a third runway there.
Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, told the party’s conference that an incoming Labour Government would not allow any more “dither and delay” over the need to boost airport capacity in the south east. Labour sources suggested that the party was now open-minded about whether Heathrow or Gatwick should be expanded, which would be a significant shift in policy.
If it wins power next May, Labour would have to make a big decision on the review led by Sir Howard Davies, chairman of the Airports Commission, which has ruled out the London Mayor Boris Johnson’s plans for a new airport in the Thames Estuary and will issue its final report after the election.
Mr Balls moved Labour closer to saying it would accept the Commission’s verdict. If it backs Heathrow, Mr Miliband would be under strong pressure to make a U-turn. He also opposed a third runway at Heathrow during his successful Labour leadership campaign in 2010.
The shadow Chancellor, who is thought to be keener on Heathrow expansion than Mr Miliband, did not express any preference in his speech between Heathrow and Gatwick.
But he said that Labour would set up a National Infrastructure Commission to “end dither and delay” on decisions on major projects. “Whatever the outcome of the Howard Davies review into airport capacity, we must resolve to finally make a decision on airport capacity in London and the south east - expanding capacity while taking into account the environmental impact,” he said. “No more kicking into the long grass, but taking the right decisions for Britain’s long-term future.”
Mr Balls’ message was seen as part of a drive by Labour to become more “business-friendly” amid criticism that the party has alienated business groups.
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