A senior Tory environmentalist has urged David Cameron to ignore his Lib Dem coalition colleagues and come out in favour of a third runway at Heathrow. Tim Yeo, a former vociferous opponent of the scheme, said he had changed his mind after realising the UK was ‘falling behind’ in aviation capacity.
His intervention comes just days after housing minister Grant Shapps hinted that a future Tory government could consider the option.
During his election campaign, the Prime Minister promised not to build a third runway, in a bid to attract green voters.
But in recent months the Tories have been wavering, amid fears their stance on airport expansion could be hurting the economy.
The Lib Dems remain totally opposed, as do some senior Tories, including transport secretary Justine Greening and backbencher Zac Goldsmith.
Meanwhile London Mayor Boris Johnson is pushing for an alternative scheme – an airport on an island in the Thames estuary.
Mr Yeo, chairman of the Commons energy and climate change committee, yesterday told the BBC he had dropped his opposition to a third Heathrow runway, which had been one of his key green beliefs.
He told Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘This is a race in which Britain is now falling behind and we need to get back into it.
‘The business world is quite clear our lack of airport capacity means they have a disadvantage competitively against the rest of Europe.’ Expansion would also ‘create jobs and be welcomed by the construction industry’, he said.
‘The airlines are among the people pushing for this now very badly needed expansion so that we don’t continue to lose out against airports like Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle, both of whom have twice as many destinations in China, twice as many flights going to China.’
However, he said, airlines might need to pay more for their emissions if capacity were to increase.
Mr Yeo, a former environment minister, said he had previously been against airport expansion in the South East because he believed it would ‘inevitably lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions’. But he said he changed his stance after aircraft emissions were brought within an overall EU cap for all industries in January.
He argued this meant that as long as other industries continue to cut their emissions, those from aviation can increase.
‘Even if we covered the whole of Surrey and Berkshire in new runways, it wouldn’t actually lead to a single kilogram of extra greenhouse gas emissions taking place,’ he said. Mr Yeo has faced calls to quit the climate change committee after it emerged earlier this month that he was paid £140,000 last year from the renewable energy sector.
Addressing arguments by campaigners that a third runway would lead to intolerable noise, Mr Yeo said failing to expand Heathrow could in fact lead to more noise.
He said: ‘If you have a big, modern hub airport, airlines fly their most modern and quietest aircraft in there. If Heathrow falls behind, the quiet aircraft will go to Frankfurt, they’ll go to Paris.”
Former Labour chancellor Alastair Darling told the programme: ‘Heathrow has more destinations than most other airports in the world. The advantage of Heathrow is it is there now, we can’t go on putting this decision off.’
John Stewart, of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, said: ‘The Department for Transport’s own figures show we have sufficient capacity, even in London and the South East, until almost 2030.’
Jane Thomas, of Friends of the Earth, said: ‘The Tories were emphatic there would be no Heathrow expansion in 2010, and we still expect that commitment.’
Last night,in an article in a national newspaper, Mr Yeo said Mr Cameron must ‘find his sense of mission’ and drop his objection to a third runway.
‘The Prime Minister must ask himself whether he is a man or a mouse,’ he said. ‘Does he want to be another Harold Macmillan, presiding over a dignified slide to insignificance?
‘Or is there somewhere inside his heart… a trace of Thatcher, determined to reverse the direction of our ship?
‘An immediate go-ahead for a third runway will symbolise the start of a new era, the moment the Cameron government found its sense of mission. Let’s go for it.’
He argued that the fact that airlines have been brought within the EU cap on carbon emissions meant that airlines will have to develop greener planes to take advantage of an expanded Heathrow.