LONDON: Britain Tuesday backed a $22 billion expansion of Heathrow Airport, ending 25 years of indecision and promising to boost global trade links following the vote to leave the European Union. Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, defeated a proposal from smaller rival Gatwick and will secure the first new full-length runway to be built near London in 70 years after environmental and political protests scuppered previous attempts.
Prime Minister Theresa May, a former critic of Heathrow expansion, said she had opted for a plan that would boost the economy, create jobs and provide access to global markets.
But her decision put her on an immediate collision course with senior politicians, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who oppose the plan.
“After decades of delay we are showing that we will take the big decisions when they’re the right decisions for Britain,” May told London’s Evening Standard newspaper.
The decision to jump-start one of Europe’s biggest infrastructure projects is one of May’s most significant moves since she took office in July and follows her approval in September of a $24 billion nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point.
By choosing to build a third runway at Heathrow, which will require rebuilding parts of the motorway circling the capital, May opted for the more expensive and complex option over cheaper plans to extend an existing Heathrow runway or build a new one at Gatwick, south of London.
According to a three-year study by Britain’s independent Airports Commission, a new runway at Heathrow would create 70,000 new jobs by 2050 and increase gross domestic product by between 0.65 and 0.75 percent over the same period.
It will also enable Britain to keep pace with Europe’s biggest airports in Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, which boast greater capacity, while Heathrow’s established links with emerging markets were seen to strengthen its case in the wake of Britain’s June vote to leave the EU.
But within hours of the decision, politicians were lining up to denounce it.
Johnson said a third runway was “undeliverable” and “very likely to be stopped” while London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he would continue to oppose Heathrow’s expansion.
Zac Goldsmith, a lawmaker in May’s Conservative Party, was expected to resign over the issue, causing a local election in his constituency near the airport and potentially threatening May’s already slim majority in parliament.
Johnson, a former Mayor of London who once proposed building a new airport to the east of the city, said he worried that a third runway would be followed by a clamor for a fourth.
“You’d have New York, a city of beautiful skyscrapers, Paris the city of light, London the city of planes,” he told reporters. “Is that really what we want for our fantastic capital city?”
The 18 billion pound ($21.95 billion) project is now likely to face legal challenges and a final vote by lawmakers in a year’s time, meaning the runway can only open by 2025 at the earliest. Surveys show a majority of lawmakers will back the plan.
Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said governments had prevaricated for too long.
“Put simply, it’s about time,” he said. “Businesses will now want assurances that the final approval process for Heathrow’s new runway will be smooth and swift, so that construction can begin as soon as possible. The time for playing politics with our national connectivity is over.”
Heathrow is owned by Spanish infrastructure company Ferrovial, Qatar Holding, China Investment Corp and other investors, and the bill for expansion will be paid for by the private sector, with the government expected to pay for some of the additional road and rail costs.
Engineering firms Arup and U.S.-headquartered CH2M, British construction company MACE and construction and project management firm Turner & Townsend are already working on the early stages of the project.
The government said the U.K. aviation regulator would work with Heathrow and airlines to ensure the new runway was affordable and keep landing charges paid by airlines close to current levels.
The government also proposed legally binding noise targets to provide respite for local residents, many of whom oppose expansion due to worries over noise and air pollution. Heathrow will also need to meet air quality rules as a condition of planning approval.
“Heathrow stands ready to work with government, businesses, airlines and our local communities to deliver an airport that is fair, affordable and secures the benefits of expansion for the whole of the U.K.,” the airport said.