LONDON — British lawmakers are set to vote Monday on whether to expand Europe’s biggest airport in what the government has described as the most important transportation decision in a generation.
The decision on a third runway at Heathrow airport comes after years of study and debate over the building of the first full runway in the southeast of the country since World War II. Approval of the 14 billion-pound ($18.6 billion) project is certain to be challenged in the courts.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s government believes expansion is the right move for Britain, a signal showing national commitment to expand international trade transport links that will boost the economy for generations to come. Business groups have strongly supported her, arguing expansion is tantamount to hanging up the “open for business,” sign.
“We have reached the day when Parliament needs to say yes …,” said Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the CBI business group. “Any more delay, and our competitors – who have been busy building their own aviation capacity and trade relationships – will pull further ahead.”
Opponents object to the project on environmental, noise and financial grounds. Friends of the Earth described it as a “morally reprehensible” move that would see Heathrow emitting as much carbon as the whole of Portugal.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged to join legal action brought by local councils against expansion and has said Heathrow already exposes the city to more aircraft noise than Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Munich and Madrid combined. He argues that it would also lead to toxic emissions above legal norms.
“This will be a critical moment, and for the sake of Londoners affected by poor air quality, disruption from noise and the costs needed to improve transport connections I will do what I can to stop these poor plans,” Khan said in a statement.
May has directed Conservative Party lawmakers to vote for the project. However, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who once pledge to lie down in front of bulldozers to prevent it from happening, won’t participate because he is on a trade mission abroad.
His absence did not go unnoticed. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said Johnson, who represents the Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency near Heathrow, should resign.
“If he is unable to be present, then we have to ask the question what on Earth is he doing and who is he representing?” Corbyn said.
Another member of the Conservative government, Greg Hands, resigned his job as international trade minister last week rather than break an election promise and vote for Heathrow expansion. Johnson, in a letter to councillors in his parliamentary district obtained by the Evening Standard, said that staying in the Cabinet would allow him to keep fighting against the runway.
“Some of my critics have suggested that I should resign over the issue. No doubt they have my best interests at heart,” the newspaper quoted the letter as saying. “But it is clear from what is likely to be a large majority of (lawmakers) who are in favour of a third runway that my resignation would have achieved absolutely nothing.”