BAA to give up on third Heathrow runway

'Spectacular result for the 2M campaign'

THE airport operator BAA has bowed to opposition to a third runway at Heathrow airport. It will not submit a planning application before the general election and will not sign large contracts to “bounce” a future Conservative government into accepting it.

Senior BAA figures have also told the Tories the company will cease to fight for the third runway if they form the next government.

Theresa Villiers, the shadow transport secretary, said: “Last week BAA conveyed to us at our party conference that it will not be submitting a planning application before the election.

“It seems BAA has woken up to the fact that we mean what we say on Heathrow and that if we win the general election there will be no third runway.”

Labour pushed through the runway plan despite the opposition of Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, and Ed Miliband, the energy and climate secretary. Residents and campaigners accused ministers of sacrificing their green credentials to the aviation lobby.

Geoff Hoon, then transport secretary, approved the £9 billion third runway and sixth terminal last January and ministers indicated the project would be rushed through, making it more difficult for the Tories to overturn the decision.

The announcement at last week’s Conservative conference that a Tory government would block expansion of London’s big airports has forced BAA to reappraise the scheme. Its new stance means the taxpayer will not be forced to pay a large sum in compensation for any wasted work.

Publicly, BAA executives are urging the Tories not to “close the door” on expansion plans and say they are still working on the project. But they admitted they were surrendering in a meeting with aides to Villiers last week.

BAA said: “We will always respect the right of the government to take the decision it thinks is the right one.” Some suspect BAA’s position is a tactical ploy and it will continue to work behind the scenes to convince the Tories of the need for expansion.

But the scheme’s opponents are delighted.

“The game is up for BAA,” said Edward Lister, leader of Wandsworth council and spokesman for the 2M Group, an alliance of local authorities opposing expansion. “The third runway will never happen and they know it. It’s a spectacular result for the campaign.”

John Stewart, chairman of Hacan (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise) ClearSkies, said: “There are all sorts of reasons that businesses come to London and Heathrow is just one of them.”

Expansion of Heathrow risked undermining Britain’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. It was also claimed expansion would breach European limits on nitrogen dioxide levels around the airport.

BAA and British Airways said the runway was needed to ensure Heathrow can compete with large European airports. The airport operator wanted annual flights to increase from 480,000 to more than 700,000.

A group of councils, backed by Boris Johnson, the London mayor, is seeking a judicial review of Hoon’s decision, arguing the consultation process was flawed and the decision irrational. A High Court hearing is expected later this year.

Greenpeace has a plot of land on the site of the proposed runway, with the ownership split between thousands of its supporters. Those who said they would never sell their plots to BAA include Emma Thompson, the actress, and Alistair McGowan, the comedian.

Business groups argue Heathrow will fall into decline unless it is allowed to expand. Lord Soley, campaign director of Future Heathrow, said: “The Conservatives will have to find another international hub or reverse their decision.”

The Tories also oppose second runways at Stansted and Gatwick. They are likely to consider building a new international hub. Boris Johnson supports the building of a new airport at the Thames Estuary and BAA said it was NOW PREPARED TO CONSIDER THE ESTUARY OPTION, previously dismissed as costly and “unrealistic” by critics.

Reprinted from The Sunday Times

October 11, 2009