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Heathrow case for third runway 'strengthened' after Brexit, review chief says

Published 24/10/2016

Howard Davies, chairman of the Airports Commission
Howard Davies, chairman of the Airports Commission

The case for Heathrow expansion is now "overwhelming", according to the man who led the Government-commissioned review of airport capacity.

Sir Howard Davies, chairman of the Airports Commission, said Brexit underlined the need for a "clear strategic decision" in favour of Heathrow by ministers.

The Government will choose which scheme to back on Tuesday, ending more than a year of uncertainty since the Davies Commission came out in favour a third runway at Heathrow.

Prime Minister Theresa May will chair a meeting of the airport sub-committee - made up of key Cabinet ministers including Chancellor Philip Hammond, Business Secretary Greg Clark and Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom - on Tuesday morning as well as the regular meeting of the Cabinet.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling will then make a statement to MPs at around 12.30pm announcing the decision.

He has acknowledged that any of the three options on the table - new runways at Heathrow or Gatwick, or extending an existing runway at Heathrow - would be controversial but would "open up new opportunities for Britain" as it adjusted to Brexit.

Gatwick chairman Sir Roy McNulty issued a last-minute plea to the airport sub-committee, stating that allowing London to have " two world class airports" would send a powerful signal to the world that "Britain is truly open for business".

He claimed that the environmental impacts of expanding the West Sussex airport would be " a fraction of those at Heathrow", adding: "Gatwick represents the best chance of something actually happening. It is the deliverable option."

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Sir Howard dismissed the idea of expanding both Heathrow and Gatwick - and hinted that Birmingham could be the next in line for a new runway once capacity in the South East had been expanded.

He said: " The arguments for making a decision now, and for Heathrow, have strengthened in recent months.

"Overseas, the lack of a decision is seen as a symbol of Britain's inability to decide on its future as a trading nation. That may well be to overstate the case, but it is the way overseas businesses and governments view it.

"And the need for a clear strategic direction is more important since the referendum result. The rhetoric about becoming a European Singapore with a 'blue water' trading focus seems empty if we cannot connect to the new markets we wish to serve."

Sir Howard said Gatwick was largely a European short-haul airport while Heathrow has inbound passengers from around the world and "hugely more air freight, some 150 times as much as Gatwick".

Allowing new runways at both airports would be a mistake and "could mean neither is built" because of the risk of a legal challenge.

And once the high-speed HS2 rail line is built, " Birmingham might indeed be a more interesting option" than Gatwick.

Sir Howard blamed former prime minister David Cameron - who had given a "no ifs, no buts" guarantee that there would not be a third runway at Heathrow - for the delay in the decision since he presented his report, claiming he was an "immovable object".

Mrs May has moved to head off possible Cabinet resignations by giving ministers freedom to speak out against the Government's decision, with the possibility of Heathrow expansion fiercely opposed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Justine Greening.

Downing Street said any ministers wanting to voice their opposition to the plans would have to seek permission from the Prime Minister in advance.

Press Association

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