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A new public consultation into airport expansion is reportedly to be launched by the Airports Commission today.
The eleventh-hour move is being seen as stoking fears of further delays to a politically sensitive decision.
It came as London mayor and anti-Heathrow expansion campaigner Boris Johnson was elected as an MP to the nearby Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency in the general election as part of an expected tight Conservative victory.
In a bid to avert a potential legal challenge to the three-year review, the Airports Commission chairman Sir Howard Davies will tell Heathrow and Gatwick on Friday that it is seeking public comment on the impact of expansion on air quality, the Financial Times reported.
The move follows the Supreme Court ruling last month that the UK must speed up its efforts to tackle air pollution, having breached EU limits.
The news will raise concerns that the commission’s recommendation on where to build a new runway – which was to have been ready for the new transport minister — could be delayed.
Business leaders and the airline industry have repeatedly warned against further delays to a decision postponed several times by successive governments.
With Heathrow already running at full capacity, a new runway is seen as vital to UK growth and trade.
The fresh consultation is expected to finish by the end of the month and will be technically focused. It is not likely to require a series of meetings with consumers.
The commission is still hoping to deliver a report by the end of June, although people close to the process suggested this could be difficult, according to the FT.
Sir Howard will be under pressure to ensure the process is completed as he is due to start a new job as chairman of Royal Bank of Scotland in September.
Heathrow’s expansion plan has been criticised given that the roads surrounding the UK’s largest airport already breach EU air pollution limits.
A previous government decision to allow a third runway at Heathrow was overturned by the courts in 2010 on environmental grounds.
Rival Gatwick has always claimed that expansion at Heathrow could again be challenged legally.
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