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BAA’s third Heathrow runway plans back on the agenda

Description: Aerial view of planes on apron at London Heathrow Airport, UK

A government policy change will allow proposals for a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport to be submitted by BAA. Photograph: Ben Cawthra/Rex Features

The government will not block BAA from submitting proposals for a third Heathrow runway in a forthcoming revamp of policy on aviation hubs, in a move that heads off the threat of legal action by the airport owner.

A senior representative of the London mayor, Boris Johnson, said the government would allow BAA to push for expansion of Britain’s largest airport. Daniel Moylan, the mayor’s aviation policy chief, said it did not mean a third runway was back on the government’s policy agenda.

“Boris Johnson understands that for legal reasons the government is going to have to allow examination of every option. But this should not be taken as expressing a preference for a third runway,” said Moylan. Johnson is the most prominent political backer of a new airport in the south-east, with options including a new site in the Thames estuary. However, he is against the expansion of Heathrow.

The government is launching two aviation documents in July: a consultation on a “sustainable aviation framework”; and a request for options on maintaining airport hubs in the UK. If BAA lobbies for a third runway through the latter, according to one industry source, the government could use the principles established in the sustainable aviation study to rule it out emphatically or resurrect it.

“If a third runway at Heathrow can meet requirements for a sustainable aviation policy, it will be sifted through for consideration. If it cannot, it will be sifted out. That is a robust and entirely legal position to take,” said the source.

A senior aviation industry source said the options document would allow for a third runway submission, amid speculation that BAA will seek a judicial review if it is barred from submitting an argument for expansion. “The document will be carefully worded so as not to exclude any potential options for increasing hub airport capacity,” said the source.

The Department for Transport said the government remained against a third runway. “The coalition’s position regarding Heathrow has not changed,” it said.

The shadow transport secretary, Maria Eagle, said: “The only way we are going to get agreement on a long-term strategy is if ministers finally take up our offer to work together on a cross-party basis to develop a sensible alternative to the rejected Heathrow third runway and the unworkable fantasy Thames estuary proposals.”

However, allowing a submission on Heathrow expansion will increase fears among third-runway opponents that senior government figures are nonetheless sympathetic to BAA’s case. Those concerns are shared by Johnson’s camp, which believes high-profile campaigning by business leaders and Willie Walsh, the boss of International Airlines Group, is having an effect. Johnson is concerned that his lobbying for more airport capacity in the south-east will bolster the campaign for a reversal on Heathrow, instead of boosting his calls for a new airport.

Those fears have been stoked by an apparent softening in the vehemence of David Cameron and George Osborne’s opposition to new runways in the south-east. The prime minister said in March that he was “not blind to the need to increase airport capacity, particularly in the south-east“. A few days later, in the budget, Osborne made a pointed call to confront the lack of runways in the London area.

Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond, on Sunday reiterated his threat to stand down as an MP if his party backtracked on Heathrow.

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