The owner of Stansted and Manchester airports, the Manchester Airports Group (MAG), is prepared to mount a legal challenge against the government if Theresa May approves the building of new runways at Gatwick and Heathrow next week.
There has been speculation that ministers could take a surprise decision to give the green light to expansion at both airports on Tuesday, prompting Manchester Airports Group (MAG) to say it would fight the government in court.
MAG, which owns Stansted, Manchester, East Midlands and Bournemouth airports, said the Airports Commission’s 2015 report by Sir Howard Davies had only fully examined the case for one new runway to be built before 2030, though it had concluded two would be needed to fulfil demand by 2050.
Tim Hawkins, MAG’s corporate affairs director, told the Guardian his group would have no choice but to challenge the government if it decided to approve new runways at both Gatwick and Heathrow, because other airports had not been given the opportunity to present their own cases for the second phase of UK airport expansion post-2030.
Any decision to press ahead with both runways would be a major concern for other London and regional airports, Hawkins said. “If the government tries to make a decision about a second new runway at this point, we would almost certainly object, including by way of legal challenge,” he said.
“The government would put us in a position where we basically had no choice.
“We’re very clear there’s no evidence for the government to make a decision about more than one new runway. It’s going to need to run a further process before it can make that decision.”
Calls for the government to commit to expansion of both airports have grown in recent weeks, including from the boss of Monarch airline group and editorials in both the Sun and the London Evening Standard.
On Thursday, the trade publication New Civil Engineer reported it understood Downing Street was poised to give the nod to expansion at Heathrow immediately and also allow Gatwick to expand with a second runway within the next five years, as well as calling for an advancement of expansion plans at Birminghamairport. However, there was no additional detail to back up the assertion in the report.
Earlier on Friday, George Osborne said the economic case to build a new runway at the west London airport instead of Gatwick was “overwhelming” and that Heathrow expansion should be prioritised over Gatwick “or else, in practice, nothing will get built”.
In a series of tweets, the former chancellor said it was time for a decision and it had to be Heathrow, to connect with the “northern powerhouse” and ensure the UK was open to global trade. He added: “If we want Britain to be outward-looking, free-trading and global, we must expand the great airport that connects us to that world and that trade.”
The Airports Commission reported (P 34) that there was “likely to be sufficient demand to justify a second additional runway by 2050 or, in some scenarios, earlier”, though it said such further expansion would not necessarily be justified on environmental grounds.
The commission said that it would be “premature” for it to consider post-2030 expansion plans, and cautioned that any new cases for additional expansion still “need to be closely scrutinised in the light of climate-change policy”.
Tim Hawkins, MAG’s corporate affairs director, said the Davies commission’s focus on the first phase of expansion meant its research had “excluded a whole load of options that could be relevant for the period post-2030”.
“It hasn’t provided any evidence to government to be able to make a decision about those options,” he said.
“We’ve been really clear and consistent on this point with government and the commission and other stakeholders throughout the process, that this is a major concern to us – that this process that was focused on the period before 2030 but now the shortlist from this process could somehow be used to decide on a second new runway as well.”
The government has thus far played down the possibility of building both runways, with the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, telling the Conservative party conference that building both was “not legally straightforward”.
However, in his response, the aviation minister, Lord Ahmad, appeared to scotch rumours of dual expansion, telling the House of Lords that “the commission reported back on the need to increase capacity by 2030 with the addition of one runway in the south-east, and that is where the government’s decision is focused”.
Any decision on airport expansion is likely to face considerable legal obstacles. On Tuesday, May’s local authority in her Maidenhead constituency revealed it is prepared to spend £50,000 on a judicial review if her government approves the expansion of Heathrow.