Senior Tory turns on Boris Johnson with call to cancel Heathrow expansion

Ashley Cowburn
AFP via Getty Images

Boris Johnson’s government should cancel Heathrow airport expansion as it risks worsening air quality and increasing noise pollution for thousands, the former environment secretary has warned.

Theresa Villiers – a cabinet minister until a fortnight ago – told The Independent that supporters of the multi-billion pound third runway at the west London airport have failed to present a “convincing” enough case for it to go ahead.

Her remarks come ahead of a critical ruling on the project tomorrow at the Court of Appeal, with anti-Heathrow activists arguing the government has failed to properly consider the impact on the climate.

The environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth have suggested it could be the most important environmental law case in this country for over a generation.

Asked whether Mr Johnson should cancel the expansion, Ms Villiers said: “I’ve made no secret of the fact I would like to see alternatives pursued.

“I think a new runway at Gatwick would have far less of an environmental impact. So yes, I hope the government will think again about Heathrow expansion. I don’t think it is the right way to address capacity needs in the aviation sector.”

Adam Afriyie, the Conservative MP for Windsor, also told The Independent the scheme should be scrapped and said it was “completely incompatible” with the legally-binding target to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“With 100 per cent certainty, it would be the right move to make in our national, regional, economic interests and also the interests of Brexit where we want to be competitive with the rest of the world,” he said.

Expansion of the west London airport was given the green light by MPs in 2018 when Theresa May’s administration brought the issue to a vote. But ahead of the parliamentary recess, Mr Johnson, who vowed in 2015 to lie down in front of bulldozers to prevent building work on a third runway, sparked speculation the scheme could be scrapped.

When quizzed on whether he would “make good” on his promise to his constituents, the prime minister told MPs: “I see no bulldozers at present, nor any immediate prospect of them arriving”.

During the reshuffle, Mr Johnson reappointed Zac Goldsmith as an environment minister, who had previously described Heathrow expansion as the “most polluting, most disruptive, most expensive option”.

Conservative MP Greg Hands was also brought back into the government’s ranks as a minister, after resigning in 2018 over a promise to his constituents that he would vote against the airport’s expansion.

Ms Villiers, who was sacked by the prime minister as environment secretary two weeks’ ago, said she had been a “long opponent” of Heathrow.

She added: “Now I’m out of government, I suppose I would particularly highlight my continuing concerns about air quality and there are some really tough challenges in terms of meeting the binding targets we’re subject to on roadside emissions. We are making some real progress on that but I’m concerned that a third runway may make the local situation in relation to air quality considerably worse – not just because of the additional flights but of course the huge potential increase in car journeys.

“I can’t see that Heathrow airport have got a convincing plan that will generate the very major shift onto public transport that they will need to do if they are to have any chance of meeting commitments on air quality.

“It [Heathrow expansion] will subject hundreds of thousands more people to excessive levels of noise. Heathrow is the largest noise emitter in Europe – a third runway will make it considerably worse.”

Asked about Mr Johnson’s recent remarks in the Commons, she said: “The prime minister is well aware of the significant potential environmental impact. He’s set the challenge to the promoters of the scheme to meet those environmental pre-conditions and no doubt the Court of Appeal will be considering those in their judgement tomorrow.”

On Wednesday, the chief executive of Heathrow, John Holland-Kaye, warned that unless a third runway is built then more passengers and exporters will be forced to use Charles de Gaulle airport in Pairs.

“There's no global Britain without Heathrow expansion,” he said. “It's as simple as that. "If we don't expand our only hub airport, then we're going to be flying through Paris to get to global markets.