Labour rebels opposed to third runway give backing to new airport in Thames estuary

12.1.2009   (Guardian)

• Takeoffs and landings over water would reduce noise

• Government decision on runway possible this week

by Hélène Mulholland and Dan Milmo 

Rebel Labour MPs are stepping up their campaign against a proposed third runway
at Heathrow, which could be approved by the government this week, by backing plans
for a new London airport.

A cross-party parliamentary group will be launched this week to promote the construction
of an airport on the Thames estuary. The proposal, which would divert flights
away from London, was mooted by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, but is gathering
support against the government’s apparent determination to expand Britain’s biggest

A coalition of Labour MPs, opposition politicians and environmental campaigners
is gearing up for a prolonged battle over Heathrow, with a former government minister
telling the Guardian that Heathrow’s owner, BAA, broke a promise not to seek expansion
of the west London airport.

Nick Raynsford, who held a number of ministerial posts in Labour’s first two terms, said:  “BAA
gave a very clear undertaking that they would not ask for further expansion –
and specifically a third runway – if they were granted approval for terminal 5
and of course that has been torn up.”

BAA said yesterday that “the world has changed significantly” since it made the
pledge during the T5 planning inquiry.

Raynsford will head the new parliamentary group backing a Thames estuary airport,
which would insulate heavily populated areas from aircraft noise by allowing takeoffs
and landings over water. Johnson has commissioned Doug Oakervee, an experienced
engineer and executive chair of Crossrail, to conduct a feasibility study into
the plan, which has been dismissed as impossible by some aviation experts and
has been in effect disowned by Johnson’s parliamentary colleagues.

A decision by the government to give the go-ahead to a third runway at Heathrow
could come as early as Thursday. The decision has been delayed since last month
after the environment and
climate change ministers, Hilary Benn and Ed Miliband, expressed deep reservations. The transport
minister Lord Adonis met Gordon Brown last Wednesday and the matter was discussed
a day later in Liverpool by Benn and Miliband.

A green light for the project would set the stage for a battle of parliamentary
wills, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats vowing to vote against it
and only 32 rebel Labour MPs needed for the government to be defeated.  An early
day motion opposed to the runway already has more than that number of Labour signatories,
although some will be unable to stomach going through the voting lobbies with
the opposition.

However, a successful no vote would be purely symbolic because the government does not need
parliamentary approval before signalling its approval of Heathrow expansion

In a move that acknowledges backbench and ministerial opposition the government
is expected to embed its Heathrow decision within a wider parcel of transport
policies, including a high-speed rail hub for Heathrow.

It also emerged at the weekend that Johnson is considering a legal challenge
against the government if it allows BAA to lodge a planning application. The group
2M – which represents seven councils in London opposed to the runway – has had
lawyers engaged since the summer in looking at grounds for a judicial review.

A report commissioned by Johnson, due to be published shortly, concludes that the proposed third runway would blight communities under the
flight path and put the health of Londoners at risk.