24 July 2002

Government plans vast new airport for south

By Barrie Clement and Matthew Beard

Ministers announced a huge expansion in airport capacity yesterday to approval from business leaders and threats of action from environmental campaigners and local residents.

The options for the south-east of England include a new airport on the Kent marshes near the site of a sanctuary for rare birds; three extra runways for Stansted leading to the demolition of 60 listed buildings and two ancient monuments; and a third landing strip for Heathrow with the loss of more than 100 houses.

News of the expansion came as the National Audit Office, the official spending watchdog, warned that a slump in air travel since 11 September could mean that the part-privatised air traffic control service might have to be bailed out again by taxpayers. The audit office said that further loans may be needed to prevent National Air Traffic Services (Nats) from being placed into administration.

The extent of Nats' financial woes came to light in January when The Independent revealed that it needed an emergency loan of £30m after the Department for Transport had brushed aside concerns about its financial viability.

The audit office launched a scathing attack yesterday on the handling of the part-privatisation in March last year, saying the ministry should have heeded warnings from both Nats and the Civil Aviation Authority about the effects of a calamity, which in the event turned out to be the effect of the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Despite the problems facing the industry, Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, issued proposals yesterday for expanding the capacity of airports over the next 30 years. A government analysis argued that the demand for air travel will continue to increase, rising from about 180 million passengers through British airports in 2000 to 500 million in 2030.

Mr Darling proposes a new airport at Alconbury near the Huntingdon constituency of the former prime minister John Major and a possible new airport north of Bristol. Manchester could also get a new terminal under the options.

The Department for Transport said that if no new runways were built return flights from main airports in the South-east could cost an average of £100 more. The Government did not commit itself to any of the options, but made it clear that there would be extra runways. Mr
Darling said that doing nothing was "not an option" because existing capacity would not meet demand.

Mr Darling told MPs: "We have built the fourth largest economy in the world on our ability to trade. Air travel is crucial to our expanding economy."

He added that some British airports, such as Heathrow, were already near capacity and some could not cope even with a modest increase in demand.

Anti-expansion campaigners at Heathrow predicted that householders under the new flight paths would resort to direct action to stop the construction of the new short runway which would be used for short haul flights.

Paul de Zylva, of Friends of the Earth, said the proposals were "terrible news" for the environment and local communities. "This is proof positive that the lumbering monster that is the aviation industry is well and truly out of control," he said.

Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said more aviation capacity was vital to the UK's competitiveness, wealth creation and employment.