Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon has told MPs the government has approved controversial plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport.
The confirmation of the expansion comes despite opposition from residents, environmentalists and MPs.
Leading business and union figures back the project, saying it will create jobs and boost the UK’s competitiveness.
The Tories called it a “bleak day for the environment” and said they would “fight it every step of the way”.
And the debate was halted when local Labour MP John McDonnell shouted “disgrace” as the transport secretary said MPs would not get a vote on the decision.
After refusing requests to end his protest he was ordered out of the Commons and suspended for a week.
The government has long argued, in principle, that it is in favour of the scheme, subject to noise and air pollution limits, and undertakings about access and traffic congestion.
There has been deep unease within Labour ranks about the decision, with several cabinet members reported to be unconvinced about the project and more than 50 MPs openly opposed.
Alongside the commitment to a new runway, Mr Hoon also announced increased investment in public transport, including the possibility of new high-speed rail links from the airport.
In an effort to appease its critics he also outlined a series of measures to limit noise and emissions, with airlines using the new runway required to use the newest, least polluting aircraft.
He told MPs the government was satisfied environmental targets could be met, as it would put an initial cap on additional flights from the new runway of 125,000, would ensure new slots were “green slots” used by only the “cleanest planes” and would set a new target on aircraft emissions – that they would be lower in 2050 than in 2005.
“Taken together this gives us the toughest climate change regime for aviation of any country in the world,” he told MPs.
He also announced he would set up a company to look into creating a high speed rail line between London and Scotland – adding there was a “strong case” for a new high speed rail hub at Heathrow.
[Hoon said he wouldn’t let Heathrow boost capacity on its existing runways by allowing the airport to operate them on a mixed mode basis, which uses runways for a mix or arrivals and departures. At present, one runway is allocated for takeoffs and one for the landings. – Bloomberg].
He also said he had decided against [allowing] “mixed mode” use of runways – where planes land at one airport until 3pm then the other for the rest of the day to give residents a break from noise. As part of these changes the Cranford agreement, which limits planes taking off to the east of the airport on the northern runway, would end.
“Heathrow is the only hub airport, it’s our most important international gateway, it connects us with the growth markets of the future – essential for every great trading nation,” he told MPs.
Doing nothing would only give an advantage to its competitors, he said, adding: “The government is taking the right decisions for the long term.”
At a press conference in Berlin ahead of the Commons statement, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he wanted to “protect the economic future of the country while, at the same time, meeting the very tough environmental conditions we have set ourselves”.
Business Secretary Lord Mandelson also defended the government’s commitment to environmental concerns adding: “It’s a classic dilemma – we want to forge ahead in implementing our climate change ambitions when others are not but we don’t want to lose our economic competitiveness in the process. We want to do both these things.”
Virgin Atlantic’s Paul Charles told BBC Radio 5 Live that if there was no third runway “Britain’s economy will suffer. Investors will walk out, they won’t invest here, jobs won’t be created and people will go to Europe instead”.
Mr McDonnell speaking ahead of the announcement and his suspension from the Commons, said opponents would “use every mechanism possible” including legal challenges, to stop the runway going ahead.
Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers told BBC Radio 4’s Today any government environmental promises would be shown “to not be worth the paper they are written on” and warned anyone getting involved in the process that her party would cancel the project if they win the next general election.
It is at risk and if it continues to decline, then the consequences for west London and the Thames Valley will be very, very serious indeed
In the Commons she said: “This is a bleak day for our environment and for all those of us who care about safeguarding it.”
The Liberal Democrats also oppose the third runway and have urged ministers to invest in high-speed rail links instead.
Their spokeswoman, Susan Kramer, told the BBC the arguments in favour of expansion were “glib” and south west London would become a “pretty miserable” place to live.
“There’s this conventional wisdom amongst business that you must grow the airport … it just isn’t held up by the reality. Actually Heathrow has been serving fewer destinations over the last ten years.”
The statement to MPs – it is not subject to a vote in the Commons – marks the start of the planning process which would be a lengthy process, even without the opposition and legal challenges expected in this case.
Work on a new runway is unlikely to start until 2015 and it is not expected to be operational for at least a decade.
Protests have been growing in anticipation of a decision, which was due to be made in December but was delayed amid reports of divisions within government over the issue.
About 700 homes will have to be demolished to make way for the runway, which will increase the number of flights using Heathrow from about 480,000 a year now to 702,000 by 2030.
Campaigners have bought some land earmarked for the construction of the runway in an effort to frustrate the expansion plans.
Environmental campaigners say proceeding with the new runway will leave the government’s legal commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 in tatters.
“Expanding Heathrow would shatter the government’s international reputation on climate change,” said Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth.
“We need bold and urgent action to create a low-carbon economy, not more backing for the climate-wrecking activities of the aviation industry.”
Supporters of the runway say Heathrow is already operating at full capacity and the UK economy will lose business to the rest of Europe if it does not go ahead.
They point out that rival airports such as Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam already have at least four runways and that Heathrow is at risk of falling further behind.
Former Labour MP Lord Soley is the campaign director of Future Heathrow, which represents groups in favour of expanding the airport.
He told BBC News that Heathrow brought jobs and “prosperity” to surrounding areas adding: “It is at risk and if it continues to decline, then the consequences for west London and the Thames Valley will be very, very serious indeed.”
British Airways, the largest airline at Heathrow, has said expanding the airport is the only “credible option”.
Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: “This approach to expanding Heathrow’s capacity makes real sense. It will create the integrated transport system necessary for an economy that needs to grow in an environmentally sustainable fashion.
“This is not an easy decision. But this announcement balances the needs of the economy with those of the environment, and provides the right framework for the country’s long-term needs.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
MPs told of decision
Planning process begins – this will take years
Legal challenge likely in days
If Tories win next election they would scrap plan
If all goes according to government plan, construction would start in 2015
Row looms after Brown approves plans for London airport expansion
By Michael Savage, Political Correspondent
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% 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.