- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

LONDON | The British government Thursday approved the construction of a controversial third runway for London’s Heathrow Airport - Europe’s busiest - but it doesn’t mean it will be built in the next year or two.

Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon told Parliament the new runway and a new passenger terminal should be ready between 2015 and 2020, but that optimistic timetable may be delayed if determined opponents can slow the permit process with legal challenges.

The project also could be threatened if the Conservative Party, which is opposed to the plan, wins the next election, which must be held by the middle of next year.

National polls have long been predicting a Conservative Party victory - leading opponents of the runway to devise a strategy based on stalling.

“Despite this decision, all is far from lost,” said Zac Goldsmith, environmental adviser to Conservative Party leader David Cameron. “If the Conservatives maintain a good lead in the polls, and if campaigners can slow the process down by a few more months, the battle against the third runway will still be won.”

Celebrities including Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson and comedian Alistair McGowan helped buy a one-acre plot of land where the runway is supposed to be built to serve as a focal point for public protests.

Officials at British Airways and Virgin Atlantic hailed the decision to build the $13.1 billion runway, and union leaders were pleased with the estimated 65,000 jobs to be created.

The government’s decision is designed to keep Heathrow, which now has only two runways, competitive with other major European airports, including Amsterdam’s Schiphol, with five runways, and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle, with four.

Heathrow handles more than 450,000 flights a year, including many lucrative cross-Atlantic routes.

In an effort to mollify the powerful environmental lobby, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government made a number of concessions.

Mr. Hoon announced that billions of dollars would be spent on new high-speed rail links to and from Heathrow and a new high-speed railway linking London to northern England. He said large parts of Britain’s rail network would be electrified so quieter, cleaner trains could be used.

And he said European Union noise pollution limits would be met at Heathrow, despite the new runway, because only environmentally advanced planes would be allowed to use it. He also said the government will only allow 125,000 more flights per year, not the 220,000 that had been sought.

Activists were not convinced, saying the plan would require destroying 700 homes and significantly increase noise levels for 2 million people nearby.

The environmental coalition against the runway includes Greenpeace, which has an extensive legal budget, and key political leaders including Mr. Cameron; Nick Clegg, leader of Britain’s third-largest party the Liberal Democrats; and London Mayor Boris Johnson - who favors building a new airport east of London in the Thames River estuary.

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