After decades of delay, the British government endorsed the expansion of London’s Heathrow Airport on Tuesday. The decision to build a third runway at the airport provoked a ferocious response that illustrated why a succession of politicians have ducked the issue since the 1970s.
The announcement was meant to end years of political paralysis over aviation planning in southeast England, where Heathrow is now operating at 98 percent of its capacity, causing Britain to lose ground to airline hubs on the European Continent.
But the decision announced on Tuesday by Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, is just the start of a lengthy process that is sure to face legal challenges. It also presents Theresa May, the new prime minister who has opposed a Heathrow expansion in the past, with a crucial political test.
The government has bought some time by delaying a parliamentary vote on the matter until next year. Two of Mrs. May’s cabinet ministers — Justine Greening, the education secretary, and Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary — oppose the project; Mr. Johnson called it “undeliverable.”
Zac Goldsmith, another lawmaker from the governing Conservative Party, said he was resigning his parliamentary seat in protest . The move will prompt a special election that would reduce the Conservatives’ already slim majority in the House of Commons. Mr. Goldsmith said he would run for his old seat as an independent.
A strong environmental campaigner who lost the contest this year to become the mayor of London, Mr. Goldsmith called the runway decision “catastrophic,” but also said that the project “is almost certainly not going to be delivered.”
Caroline Lucas, a Green Party lawmaker, said that the government could not expand Heathrow if it “is remotely serious about climate targets.”
Mr. Grayling acknowledged that, given the consultation process that the project must undergo, the new runway would not be open for nine years.
Still, he insisted that the expansion was vital to Britain’s prosperity. The government has sought to present the expansion as a symbol of the economic self-confidence of an outward-looking trading nation, after the referendum vote in June to quit the European Union.
“A new runway at Heathrow will improve connectivity in the U.K. itself and crucially boost our connections with the rest of the world, supporting exports, trade and job opportunities,” Mr. Grayling said in a statement. “This isn’t just a great deal for business, it’s a great deal for passengers who will also benefit from access to more airlines, destinations and flights.”
British governments invariably struggle to deliver big infrastructure projects, from airport expansion to high-speed rail. Because of its location, Heathrow is a particularly toxic issue and arguments about its expansion have raged since the 1970s, when a government document described its capacity as “restricted.”
Part of the problem is its history: Heathrow began life in an era when the scale of modern aviation could not be imagined. Located to the west of central London, its busy flight paths cross many residential districts, and the parliamentary constituencies of influential politicians.
They include Mr. Johnson, a former mayor of London, whose opposition to a new runway is so vehement that he has said that he will lie down in front of the bulldozers to prevent the expansion. On Tuesday, he said that “the day when the bulldozers appear is a long way off, if indeed they ever materialize.”
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SOURCE: NY Times, Stephen Castle