A third runway at Heathrow Airport was officially given the go-ahead by the Government today, ending weeks of speculation.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling confirmed Britain’s worst-kept secret in an announcement on the government’s website, following an earlier decision by a Cabinet sub-committee.
Zac Goldsmith, the Richmond Park MP and defeated Conservative candidate for London Mayor, announced his immediate resignation in protest – branding the decision “catastrophic”.
That means a tricky early by-election for Theresa May, with hints the Conservatives may not even run a candidate.
And Boris Johnson will re-state his opposition to Heathrow expansion in a TV interview later today, although the Prime Minister has banned him from actively campaigning against the decision.
Because MPs will not vote on the expansion for at least a year, there will not be any immediate Cabinet resignations – with Education Secretary Justine Greening also a fierce opponent.
Mr Grayling said: “The step that government is taking today is truly momentous.
“I am proud that after years of discussion and delay this government is taking decisive action to secure the UK’s place in the global aviation market – securing jobs and business opportunities for the next decade and beyond.
“A new runway at Heathrow will improve connectivity in the UK itself and crucially boost our connections with the rest of the world, supporting exports, trade and job opportunities.
“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.”
The government hopes to end almost 50 years of airport indecision by backing the plan for a third runway, which will not fully open until 2030 at the earliest.
The move will end, at least temporarily, Gatwick’s bid for a second runway, in a decision that could trigger a High Court challenge.
Heathrow expansion will be dependent on a ban on night flights, a legal block on any fourth runway, guarantees on the expansion of domestic flights and more passengers using public transport, to cut pollution.
The government will also urge Heathrow to cut the cost of the £17.6 billion scheme, much of which will fall on taxpayers for huge transport improvements around the airport.
The Liberal Democrats and green campaigners quickly condemned expansion, with Tim Farron pointing to evidence that the Prime Minister had covered up her own earlier opposition.
He said: “The turbulence in the Conservative Party is nothing compared to the anger felt by those they have betrayed by giving up their commitment to the environment and communities in West London.
“Theresa May used to make this case, now she has ripped those words down from her website and scrubbed them from history.”
The Prime Minister’s own local council, in Windsor and Maidenhead, confirmed that it was preparing to issue legal papers to block Heathrow’s expansion.
Friends of the Earth said: “Local communities now face more noise, more air pollution and more misery from a quarter of a million extra flights each year.”
And Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, said the decision “puts a wrecking ball through the Government’s claim to be concerned about climate change”.
But the decision delighted business groups. CBI President Paul Drechsler said it came as “an enormous relief to firms in every corner of the country”.
He added: “A new runway at Heathrow is really fantastic news, especially as the country has waited nearly 50 years for this decision.
“It will create the air links that will do so much to drive jobs and unlock growth across the UK, allowing even more of our innovative, ambitious and internationally focussed firms, from Bristol to Belfast, to take off and break into new markets.”
The decision means a proposal to expand an existing runway at Heathrow has been rejected, as well as a second runway at Gatwick.
But it could also run into opposition from Heathrow’s biggest airlines, which fear a multi-billion pound expansion of the hub will price out passengers.
Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic warned that landing charges are already the highest in the world, insisting a further hike is “not an option”.
It raises the possibility of major airlines pulling out of a three-runway Heathrow and expanding elsewhere unless the airport guarantees to cap passenger fees.
As well as a looming by-election, the Prime Minister has yet to decide how to manage her Cabinet split, other than to grant “special dispensation” to Mr Johnson and Ms Greening to oppose expansion – for now.
She has yet to say whether Conservative MPs will be granted the extraordinary licence of a free vote, when the decision reaches the Commons next year.