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Heathrow expansion gets green light despite protests

LONDON, January 15 – The British government approved on Thursday plans for a third runway at London\’s Heathrow airport, the world\’s busiest air hub, despite angry opposition from green groups and locals.

Geoff Hoon, Transport Secretary in Prime Minister Gordon Brown\’s government, announced the move to the House of Commons to an angry reaction from lawmakers who, with campaigners, have formed a vocal alliance against the plan.

"Doing nothing would damage our economy and have no impact whatsoever on climate change," he said, adding that additional capacity was "critical" to protect Britain\’s global economic competitiveness.

The news was widely expected and has already prompted a furious reaction from campaigners, who have pledged to fight every step of the way to stop it.

They say building a third runway, which would increase the number of flights at Heathrow from around 480,000 to 700,000 a year, would fly in the face of government pledges to tackle climate change through cutting emissions.

John Sauven, executive director of green campaign group Greenpeace, said the move would "shred the last vestiges of Brown\’s environmental credibility.

"An expanded Heathrow would become the single biggest emitter of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in Britain… we\’ll fight it every step of the way because the lives of millions of people depend on us all slashing carbon emissions," he added.

Greenpeace is trying to block the nine-billion-pound (10 billion euro, 13 billion dollar) project by buying a plot of land in the middle of the proposed runway site.

It has sold miniature parcels of the land to around 6,000 Britons opposed to the expansion in a bid to frustrate government efforts to buy it up through compulsory purchase.

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Local residents are also opposed to the scheme, saying noise levels from the airport will become unbearable. The village of Sipson and 700 homes will be bulldozed for the new runway.

Those in favour, including Brown himself and business leaders, say the expansion of congested Heathrow is vital to help London remain a leading business centre.

The project, which would include a sixth terminal and is due to be completed by 2020, will also create around 65,000 jobs at a time when Britain is on the brink of recession.

Employers\’ organisation the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) says a third runway would generate wider economic benefits of around seven billion pounds per year.

"The case for giving Heathrow the capacity it will need for future growth is very strong, with the future prosperity of London and the wider UK economy depending on it," it said.

"This is a once in a generation opportunity to ensure that the UK has the infrastructure it requires to play its full part in a global economy."

More than 40 lawmakers from Brown\’s ruling Labour Party are opposed to the scheme and the main opposition Conservatives, who are ahead in the opinion polls, say they will scrap it if they win the next general election, to be held by mid-2010.

"Be in no doubt, this is a bleak day for our environment," said Conservative transport spokeswoman Theresa Villiers after the announcement.

"Labour\’s plans for a third runway at Heathrow would inflict devastating damage on the environment… and the Conservatives will fight them every step of the way."

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In an apparent bid to cool criticism of the plan, Hoon said that the number of flights allowed to use the new runway would be half the original proposal and offered reassurances on noise and air quality.

He also announced the formation of a new company to consider the case for a new high speed rail link between London and Scotland.

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