An independent airports review is to be established by Prime Minister David Cameron, which could pave the way for him to drop his opposition to a third runway at Heathrow.
Creating the commission of outside experts to take the controversial issue of out of politicians’ hands would effectively delay any decision on expansion of the airport .
Chancellor George Osborne was quoted as saying over the weekend: “We need more runway capacity in the southeast of England.
“Then there’s a question of where it should go – Heathrow, new Estuary airport, Stansted, Gatwick? What I would say is, let’s examine all the options. Let’s make sure we can try and create a political consensus.”
Although there are signs that Cameron wants to change his party’s Heathrow policy at the next general election, he is reluctant to break the 2010 Tory manifesto pledge to oppose a third runway and Liberal Democrat coalition partners remain strongly opposed to the plan.
Separately, foreign secretary William Hague was quoted as saying an additional runway at Heathrow may not be the answer to meeting growing airport capacity constraints.
“I think for the long term the answer is probably more radical and there are fundamental problems to continuing to develop and expand Heathrow,” he told the Daily Telegraph.
The comments came as plans emerged for a £60 billion four-runway airport near Heathrow.
A “world-leading” infrastructure firm is assessing sites to the west and north-west of London which could rival, or even replace, Heathrow to challenge other European hubs in providing air links with the Far East.
Sites in Oxfordshire and Berkshire could potentially be in the frame for the airport, according to the Independent on Sunday.
A major feasibility study has been commissioned by a consortium of British businesses, which is expected to reveal itself within weeks and is understood to have started talks with Chinese sovereign wealth funds over funding the airport, according to the newspaper.
Suggestions have also come to light that building a new four-runway airport in the Thames Estuary could take just two years longer to build than a third runway at Heathrow.
Research by architects Foster + Partners, which has drawn up the £23 billion plans for a new hub on the Isle of Grain in Kent, claims that its proposal could pass through the planning process and be built within 14 years, whereas a new runway at Heathrow could take about 12 years to gain approval and be built.