The Labour party rang the political death knell for Heathrow expansion yesterday by joining the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in declaring that building a new landing strip is “off the agenda”. Shadow transport secretary, Maria Eagle ruled out the third runway that had been backed by the previous Labour government. “The answer for the south-east is not going to be to fall back on the proposed third runway at Heathrow. The local environmental impact means that this is off the agenda,” she said.
At the same time new transport secretary, Justine Greening, ruled out revisiting the ban on a third runway at Heathrow airport – but she refused to reject outright Boris Johnson’s proposals for a new hub in south-east England.
In a speech to airport operators Greening reaffirmed the government block on new runways at Gatwick and Stansted, but declined to attack the London mayor’s campaign for the construction of a new international airport somewhere near London. Speaking at the Airport Operators Association conference on Monday, she said: “The political reality is that the [Heathrow] runway decision has been made and it is done.”
Asked if she ruled out new capacity in the south-east altogether, she said: “No. There are a number of airports in the south-east, we have people like the mayor who has proposals for new airports.” However, Greening was equivocal in her support for Johnson’s “Boris Island” proposal to build a new hub airport in the Thames estuary off the Kent coast.
“There are a number of different proposals that we have to look at … I have no doubt he will want to raise that with me,” she said.
Greening’s predecessors have played down the London mayor’s proposals in the past but they continue to play a role in the airport capacity debate, with the deputy chairman of the mayor’s transport authority and Johnson’s main advocate for expansion, Daniel Moylan, due to address the conference on Tuesday. This year a Johnson-backed study called for a new hub airport in the south-east to replace Heathrow, although it declined to single out a location.
The Roskill commission into a third London airport in 1971 recommended a site near Cublington, Buckinghamshire, but Ted Heath’s government chose a location at Maplin Sands near Southend. The “Boris island” concept, seen by some observers as a Trojan horse for getting an airport built elsewhere in the south-east, would see a £40bn airport built off the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.
Airports and airlines accept that a third runway will not be built at Heathrow in the near future, but they continue to lobby the government for more capacity, with Heathrow and Gatwick both full. Gatwick published a report into the airport industry’s role in economic growth on Monday. It claims that blocks on runway construction lead to 15,000 fewer jobs a year being created by the British economy.