Downing Street has insisted that there was no fresh delay on expanding airport capacity by 2030 as planned despite MPs not voting on the issue for more than a year.
Prime minister Theresa May effectively cleared the way for a third runway at Heathrow yesterday but faced accusations that the move was being pushed back again to 2018.
She gave ministers freedom to speak out against expansion in a concession to foreign secretary and leading Heathrow expansion opponent Boris Johnson.
May reportedly told the cabinet yesterday that the decision on expanding airport capacity in the south-east had been delayed for too long. Ministers sitting on an airports sub-committee will decide next week on a preferred scheme.
But the prime minister all but confirmed that it would be Heathrow by announcing a temporary suspension of collective responsibility on the issue, The Times reported. MPs can expect a final vote next winter, May revealed.
Former Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps accused her of failing to show “guts and authority” with a quick decision.
“I am sorry this is going to be fudged for another year,” he told the newspaper, adding that it was a “strange world” in which ministers were free to oppose government-backed projects.
The Liberal Democrats said that May was “kicking the can down the road” while the Institute of Economic Affairs said that “yet another delay in airport expansion is a severe blow for our struggling aviation industry, business and consumers”.
No 10 said that there was no delay and that air capacity would be expanded by 2030 as planned.
Plans for a third runway will be set out in a national policy statement detailing the scale of the development, the level of demand for new flights and mitigation measures to combat noise and pollution.
A public consultation will be carried out into the local impact of the decision — a move likely to involve hundreds of thousands of households. The results will then be fed into the policy statement before a final vote is taken by parliament in the winter of 2017-18.
May’s allies said that the timetable was consistent with past estimates by ministers. Heathrow claims that it could start building a third runway early in the next decade and operate the expanded airport by the end of 2025 or early 2026.
But there are fears that building could be delayed by up to a decade by legal challenges and environmental protests.
May's spokeswoman said the decision to give ministers a limited period to voice their personal views was a "mature, common-sense approach reflecting the fact that many ministers have long-held views and that ministers are also MPs and some have specific constituency issues that they have to address".
A Heathrow spokesman said it was "the expected and appropriate political process" - a view echoed by Gatwick.
British Airline Pilots Association general secretary Brian Strutton said: “Pilots believe airport expansion is vital to the UK economy and we are disappointed about further delays to a decision.
“After telling everyone we would finally know the outcome this week, the PM has now done a u-turn and built in more delay and prevarication.
“This is not good news for the UK aviation industry, which is already struggling with the uncertainties of Brexit."
The options for airport expansion include a third or extended runway at Heathrow, costing £17.6 billion or £14.4 billion, or a second runway at Gatwick costing £7.1 billion.
A decision on a new runway in the southeast has been delayed for almost 50 years since Harold Wilson set up a commission to examine the issue in 1968. A third runway at Heathrow was proposed and shelved twice under the last Labour government.
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