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Heathrow’s Third Runway Gets Go-Ahead

The Guardian, UK: The government has finally given the green light to the controversial plan to build a third runway at Heathrow after years of delays and opposition.

The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, said the announcement represented a “historic moment” that showed the government had a clear vision to build “a Britain fit for the future”. Critics claim it will damage the environment and could end up costing taxpayers billions.

Theresa May and her ministers backed expansion at a cabinet subcommittee meeting on Tuesday morning, with the decision to increase air capacity in London and the south-east then approved by the full cabinet. It will go to a vote in parliament.

In a statement to MPs, Grayling said: “Today, I’m laying before parliament our final proposal for an airports national policy statement, which signals our commitment to securing global connectivity, creating tens of thousands of local jobs and apprenticeships, and boosting our economy for future generations by expanding Heathrow airport.”

Whitehall officials have said there is no alternative option if MPs block the third runway plan. With the Conservatives divided over the issue, the prime minister will have to rely on the support of Labour and the Scottish National party to win the vote, which will be held within 21 sitting days of parliament, although sources suggested it would take place sooner to prevent any rebellion from gathering momentum.

Government insiders said Tory whips were relatively confident about winning the vote, but admitted they had concerns that Labour could come out against expanding Heathrow.

Downing Street is considering allowing MPs with constituency interests to dissent locally, while vocal opponents, such as the foreign secretary and former London mayor, Boris Johnson, and the international trade minister, Greg Hands, could be permitted to miss the vote by being out of the country on official business.

Grayling said the decision had not been easy and he recognised the strength of feeling it generated in local communities, “but this is a decision taken in the national interest and based on detailed evidence”.

“The time for action is now. Heathrow is already full and the evidence shows the remaining London airports won’t be far behind. Despite being the busiest two runways in the world, Heathrow’s capacity constraints mean it is falling behind its global competitors, impacting the UK’s economy and global trading opportunities,” he told MPs.

The transport secretary said the third runway would bring benefits far beyond London, and improving regional connectivity was one of the key reasons for backing the plan.

Up to 15% of slots from the runway would be dedicated to improving domestic connections, and the government hoped the increased competition with existing routes would give greater choice to passengers.

Grayling confirmed that up to £2.6bn in compensation would be made available for local people, including for noise insulation, and there would be 6.5 hours at night with no flights. The third runway would only be granted planning consent if it met the UK’s air quality commitments, he added.

He said Heathrow expansion would be privately funded, although critics claim it could lead to up to £15bn in extra taxpayer-funded transport costs.

Grayling said the government was supportive of other airports making the most of their existing runways, although they would have to meet noise and air quality requirements. “I hope MPs will feel the scheme is crucial to our national interests, that we need to work together to deliver it in order to create what I believe is an absolutely vital legacy for the future of our country,” he said.

However, Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, said Labour would only back the third runway if the proposal met the party’s four tests on capacity, noise and air quality, climate change, and economic growth.

“We owe it to future generations to get all of these factors absolutely right, but if the correct balance isn’t found then the law courts will quite rightly intervene,” he told MPs. “We will not rely on the assurances of the secretary of state for transport, whose assurances are sadly not worth the Hansard they are printed on.”

The former transport secretary Justine Greening, a leading opponent of the scheme, said: “This decision is not only wrong for the UK and its competitiveness, it’s also wrong for London communities who will be blighted by the pollution from Heathrow.”

Grayling said the government had acted on 24 out of 25 recommendations from the transport select committee, many to protect local communities. But John Stewart of the expansion opposition group Hacan said the revised policy statement appeared to “make a lot of nods to the committee, but a lack of firm commitments on how these recommendations will be put in place”. He said the third runway would mean “a tsunami of noise” for local communities.

The statement also appeared to pave the way for Heathrow to raise the number of expected flights, with “at least 260,000” more movements from a third runway, rather than capping the airport’s total at 740,000 a year as opponents believed.

Lilian Greenwood, the chairwoman of the transport select committee, said expansion should result in more domestic routes that were fairly distributed across the regions and nations of the UK.

Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, pointed out that the words “climate change” were not spoken by the transport secretary during his statement, questioning his commitment to the environment.

The Conservative backbencher Zac Goldsmith, who forced a byelection over the issue, accused the government of writing “a whole book of blank cheques” signed by the public to deliver the project.

Unions quickly weighed in to urge MPs to back expansion, with Labour’s support potentially crucial to carry the vote.

Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, said: “Heathrow expansion, one of the biggest construction projects in Europe, answers the demands of many Unite members across the UK – for more skilled, well-paid and sustainable jobs. Expansion will deliver these jobs and growth to every nation and region of the UK.”

The GMB union said the case was compelling and would deliver 180,000 jobs nationwide.

John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s chief executive, said MPs’ votes would “connect all of Britain to global trade, increase competition and choice for passengers and create tens of thousands of new skilled jobs for future generations”.

The British Chambers of Commerce director general, Adam Marshall, said: “A resounding vote for Heathrow expansion in parliament would do more than just unlock this crucial infrastructure project, as it would give a huge boost to business confidence and investment at a time of significant change.”

The statement ruled out a proposed shorter version of the runway that Heathrow had been considering in an attempt to bring the cost down from the airport’s original £17bn estimate.

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