An influential group of MPs has poured cold water on calls for a swift government decision on airport expansion today by questioning the legality of building a third runway at Heathrow Airport.
In a new report out this morning, the environmental audit committee told the government not to give the go-ahead to expanding the west London airport until certain environmental conditions are met.
The committee, which counts Conservative mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith among its members, said that the government has a duty to reduce illegal air pollution in the capital – and warned that building a third runway at Heathrow could put Londoners at risk.
The MPs said that in addition to demonstrating that their expansion plans can meet legal air pollution limits, Heathrow officials must also commit to covering the costs of surface transport improvements, vow to introduce a night flight ban and show that an expanded Heathrow would be less noisy than the current airport.
The report comes amid heightened speculation that the government will respond to the Airports Commission’s recommendation for Heathrow expansion within days.
It has been reported that the government’s decision could come as soon as this week. But senior transport sources told City A.M. the ruling is not expected until next week at the earliest.
The Airports Commission, led by RBS chairman Sir Howard Davies, said in July that it favoured building a third runway at Heathrow over adding another runway at Gatwick Airport or elongating one of the existing runways at Heathrow.
Prime Minister David Cameron and transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin have previously said that the government will respond to the Commission’s report in December.
A decision in favour of Heathrow expansion would prove politically challenging for Cameron, who famously made a “no ifs, no buts” pledge in 2009 that there would be no third runway at the west London airport.
Labour’s mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan also opposes expanding Heathrow, having backed expansion at Gatwick, instead.
Read more: Khan ramps up support for Gatwick
Business groups have long put pressure on the government to move ahead with a decision, claiming that multiple delays are disadvantaging British firms.
Confederation of British Industry president Paul Drechsler said last month that the government could not “pass the buck” on airport expansion any longer.
“Every day, month and year we delay building a new runway has a price in lost trade,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gavin Hayes, director of the Let Britain Fly campaign, told City A.M. yesterday: “What we think is really important is that when we get that government announcement, it is a clear and final decision to implement the Airports Commission’s recommendations.”
Senior staff at Gatwick pounced on the report last night, saying: “It is increasingly clear only expansion at Gatwick is legal and can actually happen.” But a spokesperson for Heathrow insisted that its plans “will be quieter”, and that “air quality will continue to be improved and limits will be met”.