Labour 'dithering' over third runway

The government is accused of dithering as the decision over Heathrow's third runway is put back to 2

The latest delay over the third Heathrow runway shows that “a debate is raging at the heart of government,” a leading Labour opponent of expansion has told newstatesman.com.

Transport secretary Geoff Hoon has put back until January his decision on whether to give the go-ahead for a third runway to be built at the airport by 2020.

Also on hold is a decision whether to increase flights in the meantime through “mixed mode” operation. In a written parliamentary statement Hoon said that this was to “give proper consideration to the evidence before me”.

He cited the 70,000 responses to the official consultation – the same reason given by predecessor Ruth Kelly when she announced in July the decision would be put back to this month. The Tories have accused the government of “dithering”.

In October, Labour MP John Grogan tabled a Commons motion opposing expansion, which was signed by 50 Labour MPs. He said at the time that he had been encouraged to do so by senior ministers, as part of a reported Cabinet revolt.

Grogan told newstatesman.com: “I am delighted by the delay. It can only mean one thing – that there is a debate raging at the heart of government. A month ago it looked like ministers were going to rubber-stamp expansion plans but the emergence of a more organised opposition has given them pause for thought.”

Chris Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency and a former Labour minister, said last week that conflicting statements from ministers on the issue of air pollution reflected continuing arguments over Heathrow. Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, had told the Agency’s conference that people who do not want to take action over air pollution “don’t get it”, while climate change secretary Ed Miliband declined to say that the government would not “turn a blind eye” to breaches of legally binding pollution limits.

Greenpeace also welcomed the delay. A spokesman said it was “a sign of a serious wobble within the cabinet”. Campaigners hope that ministers will go increasingly cold on airport expansion as the recession bites. A spokesman also suggested that ministers have begun to realise the implications of a recommendation from government adviser Lord Turner that aviation should be included within the UK’s overall carbon budget.

But the leader of Hillingdon Council, in whose area the airport lies, expressed dismay at the announcement. Cllr Ray Puddifoot described the delay as part of a “long history of broken promises on Heathrow”. He said: "We can only hope that this delay is a sign that the pro-expansion argument is buckling under the pressure of overwhelming opposition from all sides. The economic arguments don't stack up, the environmental impacts are immense and for Hillingdon residents it's another Christmas spent with uncertainty about the future of their homes, businesses and schools."

A Department for Transport spokesman insisted that the delay reflected the fact that Hoon has only been transport secretary since the government reshuffle in October.