Britain’s government gave the go-ahead Tuesday to build a new runway at London’s Heathrow airport despite concerns about air pollution, noise and the destruction of homes in the capital’s densely populated western neighborhoods.
The decision comes after years of discussion, study and outrage over the building of the first full runway in the southeast of the country since World War II. Theresa May’s government, reeling from a vote to leave the European Union, was anxious to prove the country was “open for business.” Detractors described it as “catastrophic.”
“The step that government is taking today is truly momentous,” Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said. “I am proud that after years of discussion and delay this government is taking decisive action to secure the U.K.’s place in the global aviation market.”
The government rejected other options to expand airport capacity, including the extension of an existing runway at Heathrow or building a second runway at Gatwick Airport, south of London.
The decision is only the first step, though. The government’s recommendation will be studied further and Parliament will vote in about a year.
Entire communities will be leveled, and the government said that compensation and mitigation could cost 2.6 billion pounds ($3.2 billion). But the government was unmoved by the concerns.
“This is an important issue for the whole country,” Grayling said. “That is why the government’s preferred scheme will be subject to full and fair public consultation.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan pledged to explore involvement in “any legal process,” as Heathrow already exposes the city to more aircraft noise than Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Munich and Madrid combined. Outraged residents argued they had been betrayed by politicians who pledged to block expansion before being put into office — only to change their minds later.
Anti-expansion groups gathered in the village of Harmondsworth, a quintessential English village replete with village green and classic red phonebox that traces its history to the 6th century. The third runway would level two-thirds of its homes.
“This is Harmondsworth, this is our little green here,” said Neil Keveran, who has campaigned against Heathrow expansion for years. The runway construction would be just across the road from his home, he said. “Nowhere else in Europe do they build their runways directly in the heart of residential areas over their cities, so I don’t see why our quality of life should be any less.”
London and southeastern England need more airport capacity to meet the growing demands of business travelers and tourists. Heathrow and rival Gatwick, 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of central London, had offered competing projects that will cost as much as 18.6 billion pounds ($29.1 billion).
But those in the pathways of the bulldozers don’t see why their homes should be sacrificed, even if the country might need capacity. The issue was so toxic that politicians created an independent commission to weigh the options — and it had decided to expand Heathrow.
It is up to political leaders and lawmakers to make the final decision, and authorities had stalled for months. The upheaval prompted by Britain’s vote to leave the EU pushed the issue back further.
A furious public relations battle has raged, with placards all over London’s subway system, for example, extolling the virtues of Heathrow or Gatwick. The commission had already rejected other options, such as one backed by former London Mayor Boris Johnson to build a new airport in the Thames Estuary.
“A new runway at Heathrow is really fantastic news, especially as the country has waited nearly 50 years for this decision,” said Paul Drechsler, the president of the Confederation of British Industry. “It will create the air links that will do so much to drive jobs and unlock growth across the U.K., allowing even more of our innovative, ambitious and internationally focused firms, from Bristol to Belfast, to take off and break into new markets.”
Many business groups and unions had offered support for expansion, in part to keep jobs in the community. But it was far from universal.
Michael O’Leary, the CEO of budget airline Ryanair, supported expansion at Gatwick, one of the airports where his carrier flies from. He described the decision as an anti-competitive “return to monopoly featherbedding at Heathrow.”
Shawn Pogatchnik in London and Paul Traynor in London contributed to this story.