Cameron Set for London Runway Talks as He Mulls Heathrow Delay

  • U.K. cabinet sub-committee to meet late Thursday afternoon
  • Speculation of delay `may be true,' transport secretary says

Prime Minister David Cameron will preside over a meeting on additional runway capacity in southeast England on Thursday afternoon as he decides whether to approve expansion of Heathrow Airport, a plan he’s previously opposed, or delay a decision until next year.

The cabinet’s Economic Affairs (Airports) Sub-Committee will meet at about 5 p.m. in London to discuss the government’s response to a report by Howard Davies published earlier this year, Cameron’s spokesman, Christian Cubitt, told reporters. Davies recommended expanding Heathrow, to the west of the capital, while leaving open the option of an additional runway at Gatwick, to the south.

“The sub-committee will come out with a conclusion and that will go to full cabinet,” Cubitt said. “The prime minister will provide a clear direction by the end of the year.”

Cameron gave lawmakers a “guarantee” on July 1, after the publication of Davies’s recommendation, that he will announce a “decision” by the end of December, but some U.K. media reports say he is planning to delay his verdict until after May’s London mayoral election to avoid blighting Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith’s campaign. The need for further environmental studies could credibly be used as a reason, Goldsmith told reporters on Tuesday.

Tree Protest

Goldsmith has pledged to resign as a lawmaker for Richmond Park, under the Heathrow flightpath, if the airport is expanded, and Cameron’s own reputation is also at stake. Before becoming prime minister, he gave a “no ifs, no buts” promise that there wouldn’t be a third runway at Heathrow, Europe’s biggest hub, and sponsored a tree in a protest orchard planted by Greenpeace at the site.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin refused to say if there will be a further delay as a result of Thursday’s meeting. Any announcement will be made in Parliament, he told lawmakers. Since the House of Commons is not meeting on Friday, that will not be possible before next week.

“I’ve read much speculation about decisions we may be about to take and some of that speculation may be true,” McLoughlin said. “When an announcement is to be made I will make it in the House.”

Cameron commissioned the airport capacity report from Davies in 2012 to allow him to avoid making a decision before this year’s general election as he sought to win votes for his Conservative Party in west London. The Conservatives had branded Heathrow’s expansion plans “Labour’s third runway” in a bid to use its unpopularity to unseat Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the 2010 election.

Competing Claims

Cameron has had to weigh the competing claims of business groups and members of Parliament from outside the capital, who are pressing for extra capacity at Heathrow, and those of his party’s lawmakers from the west of London, who were elected on a platform of opposing the airport’s expansion. International Development Secretary Justine Greening, who represents Putney, and London Mayor Boris Johnson, who holds the seat of Uxbridge, have joined Goldsmith as vocal critics of the plans.

“I will make sure that I continue to represent my constituents’ concern on this,” Greening told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper last week. She said it would be “jumping the gun” to say she would resign from the cabinet if Cameron backs extra runway capacity at Heathrow but didn’t rule it out as an option.

Cameron may postpone the decision citing a report from the Commons Environmental Audit Committee last week, the Times newspaper reported. The panel said any expansion at Heathrow should be delayed until it could commit to a series of anti-pollution requirements and concerns over air pollution standards as a result of the Volkswagen AG emissions-fixing scandal.

Heathrow said on Wednesday that the VW scandal is “completely unrelated” to the environmental data it submitted to Davies’s commission and it should not be used as a reason for delay.

“Heathrow’s technical submission to the Airports Commission on air quality was based on a vigorous vehicle-test cycle specifically designed for emission modeling, not on emissions performance claimed by manufacturers,” the airport said in a statement.

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