By Alex Stevenson
Heathrow should double its capacity by becoming a four-runway airport, a government adviser has proposed.
Tim Leunig, the chief economist at the Centre Forum think-tank who is now an adviser at Michael Gove's Department for Education, argued in a Policy Exchange report that building the extra runways 3km to the west of the current site would make such a move environmentally acceptable.
His proposals are likely to generate intense anger from campaigners opposing further airport expansion in the south-east. London mayor Boris Johnson yesterday warned the government's equivocation risked "economic catastrophe".
Ministers have put off the final decision over whether to build a third runway at Heathrow until after the next general election because the issue is intensely controversial.
Business groups have called for urgent expansion of Britain's aviation capacity, arguing the UK is falling behind other European hubs like Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam.
Now Leunig has proposed doubling Heathrow's existing capacity to 130 million users by building not one but two new runways.
It proposes mitigating the impact of the expansion by banning the noisiest aircraft, ruling out night flights and forcing narrow-bodies planes to land at a steeper angle. This, and locating the airport 3km further to the west, would mean aircraft are higher as they pass over central London.
"We can and should expand aviation capacity in the south-east. Doing so will send a much needed signal to people that Britain is open for business," Leunig argued.
"It is possible to expand Heathrow in such a way that it cements itself as Europe's number one hub, while significantly reducing the noise nuisance over West London.
"A four-runway airport would be straightforward to construct and relatively low cost by the standards of hub airports. It causes the lowest level of disruption to the wider economy of any likely airport expansion scenario."
If four runways at Heathrow are judged to be 'politically unfeasible' an alternative four-runway airport could be built at Luton, Leunig proposes. This is located next to the M1 and the Midland main rail line.
The education adviser's ideas will receive support from at least one member of his department. Junior education minister Elizabeth Truss, promoted to the government in last month's reshuffle, told politics.co.uk in August she favoured four runways at Heathrow.
"We do need a hub airport in the south-east of England," she said.
"If you want to have a hub airport three runways probably isn't enough. If we're imaginative about Heathrow, I don't see why we can't build four runways there."
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By Alex Stevenson
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