business leaders slam Heathrow expansion

The "misconception" that the business community is universally in favour of Heathrow expansion was blown out of the water yesterday, when a group of 13 high profile business leaders launched a stinging attack on the government's aviation policy.

In a letter to The Times, the group of top executives, including J Sainsbury chief executive Justin King, Carphone Warehouse boss Charles Dunstone, BskyB's James Murdoch, and private equity boss Jon Moulton, argued that the business case for a third runway at Heathrow did "not stack up".

The controversial plans had secured vocal support from employers groups such as the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce, while the argument that a third runway would provide a boost to the economy provided the back bone of the government's case for expansion.

However, the letter criticises the government's position, insisting that the business benefits associated with expansion are "unclear and unproven", and arguing that it is "wrong" to believe that the business community is universally in favour of plans for a new runway.

"We recognise the business need for air travel and that strong air links between the UK and the rest of the world are required, but the business case for the third runway simply does not stack up," the letter states. "Moreover, millions of people in the UK oppose the new runway. They are our customers and our colleagues. The business community must take account of the strongly held views of those living in the broader community in which we operate."

It also accused the government of failing to adequately explore alternative options, such as increased investment in improving the efficiency of Heathrow and the construction of new high speed rail links within the UK, and argues that expansion will result in unacceptable levels of environmental damage.

"Climate change cannot be ignored and our approach to transport must reflect the seriousness with which we take our Climate Act target to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050," the letter states.

The signatories, who also include Sir Roy Gardner, chairman of Compass, and Ian Cheshire, chief executive of Kingfisher, are calling on the government to rethink its decision to grant approval for a third runway at Heathrow and reforecast all growth assumptions for the aviation industry in the wake of recent falls in passenger numbers.

Theresa Villiers, Shadow Transport Secretary, said that the letter added further weight to opposition calls for the proposals to be scrapped. "Labour's misleading claim that all business backs a third runway has been blown out of the water," she said. "These are serious and very senior figures in the business world and they are telling Gordon Brown he has got it wrong on Heathrow."

However, both BAA and the Department for Transport reiterated their support for a third runway, arguing that it would create jobs, deliver net economic benefits and improve UK links with emerging markets.

The news comes as BAA revealed that passenger numbers fell 10 per cent during the first three months of the year as a result of the recession, poor weather, and a late Easter.

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