Environment secretary Hilary Benn has warned the government should not consider breaching European pollution limits to allow expansion at Heathrow.
Benn conceded ground-level air pollution, chiefly from road traffic, remains a problem at the airport that could scupper expansion. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Benn said a failure to meet European Commission rules would trigger “infraction proceedings”, “which is not something we can contemplate”.
The government has said it will not give the go-ahead for a third runway at Heathrow unless ground-level pollution falls within European limits.
However, ministers have indicated they could seek a temporary abrogation from the rules on condition the airport meets these standards by 2015. Opponents of a third runway argue expansion would make this impossible.
Benn’s comments provided the first open signs of a cabinet split on the issue, with at least five senior ministers opposed to a third runway. Transport secretary Geoff Hoon was due to make a decision on whether to go-ahead this month, but postponed the announcement until the end of January reportedly under pressure from energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband.
A go-ahead for the runway had seemed certain until recently, with the government repeatedly asserting support for expansion outlined in a white paper in 2003.
Airlines and airport operator BAA insist expansion is essential if Heathrow is not to lose traffic to airports on the Continent. A third runway would increase the number of flights at the airport from 480,000 a year to 700,000.