A decision on whether to build new runways in the southeast is expected to be delayed amid splits between the Tories and Liberal Democrats over the expansion of Heathrow.
The Conservative leadership has decided to make a decisive switch away from the party’s outright hostility to a third runway at the west London airport by making no mention of Heathrow in its general election manifesto, The Financial Times reports, quoting senior party sources.
That would clear the path for a majority Tory government to proceed with the project after 2015.
The Department for Transport still plans to issue two aviation papers this summer – one will be a “call for evidence” about how to preserve the UK as a leading aviation hub.
This paper will give a strong steer that the government is not committed to a third runway at Heathrow, although it will include it as an option, according to the newspaper.
It will outline other alternatives such as expanding Stansted or Gatwick, building a giant Thames estuary airport or connecting Heathrow and Gatwick with a high-speed rail line.
Under the original plan the paper should have been published three months ago, with the government formally adopting its preferred options in March 2013.
But the Treasury and Downing Street are pushing for the paper to include a long “lead time” of several years, supposedly to allow aviation companies enough time to work up properly costed responses.
In reality the delay means ministers may not have to make a firm commitment to any new hub capacity before the election, avoiding a showdown between the Tories and the Lib Dems, who oppose any major expansion of airports in the south-east, according to the FT.