23 January 2002

Ministers back plan for three new runways in South-east

By Barrie Clement, Transport Editor

Ministers are risking a huge public outcry by backing a controversial plan to build three new runways in the south-east of England despite the slump in demand for air travel since the 11 September terrorist attacks.

The Government has decided that, in principle, Britain must attempt to meet the projected rise in passenger numbers or lose out to continental countries. This means the likely end of the "green" option of levying higher taxes on air travel to suppress demand.

The new runways would be built at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted, but no decision has been taken on how the landing strips will be distributed.

A Whitehall source said the Government has not ruled out the construction of a new airport, possibly alongside the Thames estuary. Another source argued that ministers were unlikely to embark on such an enterprise given concerns over current projects in the rail industry.

The Transport Department is expected to publish a consultation paper in the spring setting out all the options. But ministers are already convinced that Britain will have to try to meet demand.

The Government is expected to come down in favour of more runways in a White Paper setting out plans for the next 30 years, which is due to be published before the end of the year.

The Transport minister John Spellar is known to be particularly enthusiastic about expansion. He is convinced that three runways will have to built in southern England if the UK is to maintain its commercial position in Europe.One of the new facilities is likely to be built at
Stansted in Essex, which is considered to be the least contentious of the three possible locations in southern England.

Other possible sites for the extra capacity are at Gatwick where two county councils believe they have a legal agreement which would prevent the construction of an additional runway before 2019. Legal experts at the Transport Department have been asked to find out if there are ways round it.

Another option is a third, short runway between the M4 and A4 at Heathrow, although this was described as "totally unacceptable" on environmental grounds in the Vandermeer report which gave the go-ahead for a fifth terminal.

Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union and a leading figure in the campaign "Freedom to Fly", said yesterday that up to 300,000 extra jobs would be lost if growth was stifled.

He pointed out that if the Government was persuaded to be cautious during the consultation process, the airports of Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, where extra capacity has either been built or approved, would soak up the demand.

Freedom to Fly, which has the support of such disparate bodies as the right-wing Institute of Directors, the CBI, the TUC and the major airlines, argues that Britain's economy would suffer if ministers bow to environmentalists and opt for a "no-growth" solution.

Fresh evidence emerged today confirming the scale of the fallout from the atrocities on 11 September.

In new research for the UN's International Labour Organisation, Professor Peter Turnbull of the business school at Cardiff University estimates that worldwide up to 400,000 workers lost their jobs after the terrorist attacks.