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June EU vote 'would not rule out Heathrow expansion decision by July'

Published 08/02/2016

Mr McLoughlin dismissed claims the decision was delayed to avoid a party political crisis for the Conservatives
Mr McLoughlin dismissed claims the decision was delayed to avoid a party political crisis for the Conservatives

Holding the EU referendum in June would not rule out a decision being made on airport expansion in south-east England by July, Patrick McLoughlin told MPs.

The Transport Secretary had suggested an early vote could further prolong the final verdict on whether to approve a new runway at Heathrow.

A decision had been due by the end of last year but was postponed after ministers demanded more analysis of environmental impacts.

Mr McLoughlin said he still hoped to come down in favour of one of three options - another at Heathrow and an extra runway at Gatwick - before MPs leave Westminster for the summer recess.

However he indicated that if that proved impossible then it was unlikely to be before the Commons returned in September.

"I don't know yet when the referendum will be; a date has not been set," he told the Transport Select Committee.

"But there will be a period of 'purdah' once that referendum is called and that may influence our availability to be able to take a decision at a specific time.

"If the referendum is June 23, a date that has been talked about, then I think we could still be on target to make it before the end of July.

"It will obviously depend on when Parliament is sitting. I don't think this is a decision I would quite like to take when Parliament was not sitting, I think that there might be quite some repercussions if one tried to do that.

"That is why I have been slightly cautious about being very specific with the date but there is no doubt in my mind that I would like to see a decision by the time the house rises for the summer."

He dismissed as "not really credible" critics' claims the decision was delayed to avoid a party political crisis for the Conservatives, whose candidate at May's London mayoral election, Zac Goldsmith, is vehemently opposed to Heathrow expansion.

And he insisted it should not affect the ability to have the new capacity operational by 2030, the deadline set by the Davies Commission which backed the third runway at Heathrow if a string of measures were put in place to deal with noise and pollution.

"I do not believe that the delay we have put in will stop us completing the project in the time the commission has recommended," he said.

The Transport Secretary indicated that he remained open to arguments from Gatwick that the Commission had "got their figures wrong" on issues such as the commercial case for the rival bids as well as environmental effects.

Figures suggesting it would generate a significantly smaller contribution to GDP are disputed by the airport's bosses, he pointed out, vowing to learn the lessons of the fiasco over the West Coast rail franchise.

Taxpayers were landed with a bill of tens of millions of pounds after the award process was scrapped in part because warnings by Virgin over the reliability of Department for Transport figures related to the contract were ignored.

"Overall I accept what the Commission are saying unless it can be somehow proved to me that the Commission got their figures wrong," he told the committee.

"It would be rather stubborn of me to say to Gatwick 'I completely dismiss everything you have said'. If they want to prove something else to me I will obviously look at that.

"I am minded that the Commission has done an incredibly detailed piece of work and I accept the Commission's report.

"But from my experience when I first arrived at the Department for Transport, Virgin had been saying that the figures were wrong, everybody assured me they weren't and it turned out Virgin were right.

"If we had listened to Virgin a bit earlier we might not have had some of the problems we went on to have so experience has taught me to be a little bit cautious and not necessarily dismiss when somebody says a certain set of figures are not truly reflective.

"I do not want to open up new inquiries but if they come with evidence that is substantial I will look at it."

Mr McLoughlin conceded it was "frustrating" that the process was taking longer than planned but defended the delay.

"There is no doubt there is a frustration about all the legal requirements that you need to jump through and the hoops we need to jump through but I think we just have to accept that that is the right thing to do.

"If you are putting in a new piece of major infrastructure in an area which hitherto it has not been then you have got to expect that people will want to have their views heard, they will want to be sure that the right environmental work has been done, the right kind of inquiries as to how that might affect their lives or the lives or their neighbourhoods.

"So yes, it is frustrating."

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