Rift widens between green lobbyists and businesses as Heathrow U-turn looms
David Cameron yesterday reassured opponents to a third runway at Heathrow that he would honour his manifesto not to expand it before the end of the current parliament.
However, amid increasing speculation that the Government is preparing for a controversial U-turn, it has emerged that a cross-party commission will be launched next week to discuss the possible expansion of airport capacity in the South East.
The Government has insisted there will be no third runway but this promise does not extend beyond 2015 as ministers try to balance carbon commitments with the need to promote business in the UK.
During Prime Minister's questions yesterday, Cameron said: "While I believe we need to establish a form of review that will bring parties together and make a decision about airport capacity, I will not be breaking my manifesto pledge."
The appointment of Sir Howard Davies as the head of the commission has worried green groups because he is the former advisor to the vocal climate sceptic Lord Lawson
Responding to the news yesterday, Greenpeace executive director John Sauven said: "David Cameron promised Londoners no ifs, no buts, no third runway at Heathrow, and no U turn on that promise.
"The aviation industry lost the debate on the third runway and, as William Hague said this week, the government could only make this sort of totemic U-turn if the facts had changed, and in this case they haven't.
"Once you consider the noise, pollution, community destruction and climate change impact of new runways, no genuinely independent commission could come to any other conclusion than Hague's."
Sauven suggested that in order to free up runway space, Heathrow should stop expanding services to Manchester and other cities which can be reached by rail and that a U-turn would damage the Conservative Party's image.
"If this latest appointment means the government is considering yet another U-turn to please Heathrow's Spanish owners Ferrovial, the Tories' last environmental credentials will disappear faster than the melting Arctic sea ice," he said.
However, businesses have insisted that, considering the current economic climate, airport expansion is crucial in bolstering the economy. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), an association that promotes the interests of around 200,000 businesses, welcomed the launch of the commission.
"The decision to set up an independent commission to look at how we can increase our aviation capacity is good news, and should lead to a robust and lasting solution," said CBI Chief Policy Director, Katja Hall.
She added: "The capacity crunch is already biting for businesses, and a lack of direct links to destinations in growing markets hampers our ability to trade overseas, so this commission should look at all the options.
"Howard Davies is a good choice for the job. The commission will understandably want to take a long, hard look at this, but we cannot afford further delays on such a growth-critical issue."
The removal of Transport Secretary Justine Greening raised concerns for environmental lobbyists earlier this week as it was seen by many that a U-turn over a third runway at Heathrow was gathering pace.
Greening had campaigned strongly against the expansion at Heathrow as her constituency - Putney, in South West London - lies directly under the Heathrow flight-path.
She has been replaced by Patrick McLoughlin, a Derbyshire MP, who would have little local motive for campaigning against a third runway.
Boris Johnson, who is staunchly opposed to an expansion and came to Greening's defence on Tuesday, described the commission as a "fudgearama". The London mayor told Radio 4's The World at One: "It's just a fudge, it's just a fudgearama and it's just an excuse for a delay - there's almost three years to run until 2015. If such a commission were not to report until after the next election we'd have lost a huge amount of time. I don't think British business would be remotely satisfied with that answer.
"Noise pollution around Heathrow already affects about 750,000 people. Almost a third of the noise pollution in the whole of Europe from aircraft is felt around Heathrow airport. It is just madness to continue to expand [Heathrow] in West London.
"There are very very good solutions. What I worry about is that we are now seeing a stealthy U-turn carried out which I don't think is in the interests of London or indeed of the country as a whole. In the end you can expand Heathrow, you can put in another runway - actually it will be a short runway - but you have to come back in 10 years' time and do another. In the end Heathrow can't satisfy the country's needs as the principal hub airport."