LONDON • The British government yesterday gave London's Heathrow Airport the green light to build a new US$22 billion (S$30.6 billion) runway, taking the most ambitious option available to boost global trade links following the country's vote to leave the European Union.
Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, had been battling its smaller rival Gatwick, south of the British capital, for the right to expand, after successive governments failed over 25 years to make a decision, due to environmental and political protests.
Construction of a third landing strip at Heathrow will allow the 70-year-old airport to handle 135 million passengers a year, up from 75 million passengers now.
"This is a really big decision for this country but it's also the clearest sign post the referendum that this country is very clearly open for business," Transport Minister Chris Grayling told reporters.
The project will also be one of the biggest infrastructure programmes in Europe.
It will go through a public consultation process, and is likely to face legal challenges, before a final vote by lawmakers in a year's time, meaning the runway could only open by 2025, at the earliest.
The runway project was selected over a cheaper option to extend one of Heathrow's runways or build another runway at Gatwick. Heathrow's biggest airline customer, British Airways, favours the airport's expansion but opposes big rises in charges.
The government has proposed legally binding noise targets to provide respite for local residents worried about demolition of several villages as well as airport noise and air pollution.
"After decades of delay we are showing that we will take the big decisions when they're the right decisions for Britain," Prime Minister Theresa May told London's Evening Standard newspaper.
"Airport expansion is vital for the economic future of the whole of the UK," she added.
Mrs May's decision is one of her most significant since she took office in July and puts her in conflict with some senior ministers who oppose air traffic expansion over densely populated west London.
One is Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, whose electoral constituency sits near Heathrow and who had, during his time as London mayor, proposed a completely new hub airport in the Thames estuary east of the capital.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the decision was wrong. "The government is running roughshod over Londoners' views - just five months ago I was elected as mayor on a clear platform of opposing a new runway at Heathrow," he said.
He added: "I will continue to challenge this decision and I am exploring how I can best be involved in any legal process over the coming months."
Heathrow Airport is set to lose its ranking as Europe's biggest hub airport to Paris' Charles de Gaulle by 2020. With only two runways, it is limited to 480,000 flights a year compared with the potential for more than 600,000 flights offered by its rival European airports with more runways.
According to a three-year study by Britain's independent Airports Commission, a new runway at Heathrow would, by 2050, create 70,000 new jobs as well as increase gross domestic product by between 0.65 and 0.75 per cent, representing a £147 billion (S$250 billion) boost to the economy over 60 years.
Heathrow's established links with emerging markets also strengthened its case in the wake of Britain's Brexit vote in June.
Heathrow is owned by Spanish infrastructure company Ferrovial, Qatar Holding, China Investment Corp and other investors, with expansion costs paid for by the private sector, not the public purse.
The British government is expected to pick up the tab for some of the additional road and rail costs.