Conflict over Heathrow third runway

British ministers at the same environment conference have expressed conflicting views on the impact

In what will be seen as criticism of colleagues who support a third runway, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has criticised those who “don’t get” the importance of air pollution.

But Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband refused to rule out turning a blind eye to breaches of the European Union air quality directive in order to allow the airport to expand.

Both men were reported earlier this month to be part of a quartet of cabinet ministers opposing the Department for Transport’s (DfT) plans to expand Heathrow, which include the addition of a third runway around 2020.

Benn has warned that Britain’s compliance with the air quality directive must not be “fudged”, although he has admitted that it will need to delay legally binding nitrogen dioxide limits for up to five years from 2010.

But other ministers, including Geoff Hoon, the transport secretary, have continued to hint that the government will accept the business case for expanding the airport, inspite of environmental concerns.

Benn told the Environment Agency’s annual conference this week that when you heard people talking about air pollution and saying: "‘Well times are tough, we have to concentrate on the things that really matter’, then we know that they don’t yet get [it].”

In an implicit admission that Benn had gone off-message, his department, DEFRA, excluded the reference to air pollution from what it described as an “updated” transcript of his speech.

Benn also told the Agency: “Our job together is to make sure that future generations have a healthy environment bequeathed to them.” The Agency’s chairman, former Labour culture secretary Lord Chris Smith, has repeatedly expressed his opposition to Heathrow expansion.

But, following a question from a conference delegate, Miliband declined to say that the government would not “turn a blind eye” to breaches of the EU directive. The question followed a newstatesman.com story that
DfT officials considered ignoring minor breaches of nitrogen dioxide limits after 2015.

Following the ministers’ comments, Smith told newstatesman.com that respecting limits to air pollution at Heathrow is an “important test” of how seriously the government takes environmental issues, which is why ministers are still arguing over expansion. He said that in the circumstances Miliband was “bound to duck” the question but added “I certainly hope it will be a given that the government will not break the law to expand Heathrow.”

A DEFRA spokesman denied that Benn’s comments were an attack on other ministers. He told newstatesman.com that there should be no question of ignoring breaches of the EU directive.