Backbench revolt over Heathrow expansion set for take off

Growing number of Labour MPs, including cabinet ministers, fearful heathrow expansion will undermine climate change credentials

The government is facing renewed pressure to block the proposed third runway at Heathrow, after new figures emerged suggesting the number of flights this winter will fall and reports emerged that a backbench rebellion on the issue is gathering momentum.

According to documents obtained by The Guardian newspaper, the number of flights to and from Heathrow will fall by 1.9 per cent in this winter, as high fuel prices and the global recession begin to take effect.

The figures from Airport Coordination Ltd, the company in charge of managing take off and landing slots at the Heathrow, the number of flights between October and March will fall by an average 25 flights a day compared to the same period last year.

The figures provide fresh ammunition for groups opposing Heathrow expansion who have repeatedly argued that the plans are based on the flawed assumption that demand for flights will keep climbing at a time when rising fuel costs and environmental concerns will in fact lead to reduction in demand for air travel.

However, a spokeswoman for airport operator BAA insisted that any fall in the number off flights would prove short-lived and that extra capacity at Heathrow was essential to meet future demand and ensure economic growth. "The figures quoted by The Guardian fail to reflect the fact that the proposals for a third runway are based on long term growth," she said. "The reality is Heathrow is full and we need a third runway."

Roger Gardner, chief executive of the Omega initiative, a research project involving a number of UK universities and dedicated to addressing how the aviation industry can become more environmentally sustainable, agreed that historically, recessions have had little long term impact on the industry's growth.

"History suggests a continuous upward trend and there is no reason to suggest the populous is losing its appetite for air travel," he said. "Countries such as China are seeing their aviation industries expand at about 14 per cent a year, so unless peak oil really does begin to bite, we are not going to see a significant shift in demand."

However, the release of the figures comes at a crucial time for the government with opposition to the expansion of Heathrow hardening ahead of a final decision on the proposals next month.

According to a number of reports over the weekend, Gordon Brown is facing a backbench rebellion if he does decide to give the proposals the green light with MPs fearful the a third runway would undermine the government's climate change bill and prompt opposition from voters in the south east at the next election.

Those MPs opposed to the Heathrow expansion are also believed to have secured tacit support from a number of senior cabinet ministers with energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband, environment secretary Hilary Benn, leader of the house Harriet Harman, and foreign secretary David Miliband all said to have doubts about the proposals.

The prime minister is reported to still be in favour of expansion and approval looks set to be granted assuming the Department for Transport concludes that expansion can go ahead without a serious breach of EU air pollution rules being incurred.

However, Gardner said that the creation of the new Energy and Climate Change department coupled with the Conservative Party's high profile opposition to a third runway meant the decision now looked less clear cut than it did earlier this year.

"The Conservative's decision to suggest rail as an alternative to expansion at Heathrow appears to have shifted the debate," he said. "It may be debatable whether rail can prove a sufficient substitute for flights as it will struggle to replace international flights, but it does seem to have added momentum to the tirade against expansion."

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