Lib Dems dig in against Heathrow third runway

Liberal Democrats are poised to register their opposition to new runways at London's airports next month, underlining coalition divisions on the issue.

The party will vote on a policy motion at their party conference in Brighton next month which would reject Boris Johnson's Thames estuary airport and rule out any new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted.

Such a move will enrage Conservative backbenchers who are calling for a rethink on the issue. The coalition has put off its consultation on the issue throughout the year, to the frustration of business groups and Tories who believe the economy is suffering as a result of the lack of new aviation infrastructure in the capital.

"Aviation policy has focused on London and the south-east and it is clear that is where the greatest demand lies; but airports and foreign travel for business or leisure must be easily accessible for citizens living across the UK," Huppert said.

"With Birmingham looking to expand, Stansted only half full and Gatwick expanding into emerging markets, regional airports and other airports within London can meet demand for the short to medium term. Especially if we provide them with the transport links they so desperately need."

He accepted that a single-hub airport would be better for the environment, but said that three runways at Heathrow would "only be a medium-term solution".

Liberal Democrats will instead propose an independent evidence-based study to find a location for a hub airport or a suitable airport to expand into a hub for the long-term.

Until then they will call for better use of regional airports to meet short-term and medium-term demand – and refuse to budge on the possibility of a third runway at Heathrow.

"Liberal Democrats have always opposed a new runway at Heathrow because it is in an appallingly bad location, with a quarter of all those in Europe affected by aircraft noise living under the Heathrow flight path," Huppert added.

The coalition's reluctance to address Britain's future aviation strategy is being seen as a result of its divisions.

In January a group of 34 free enterprise Conservatives wrote to the prime minister calling for the issue to be reviewed quickly.

March saw nearly 70 business leaders write a letter to a national newspaper calling on the UK revisit the problem. They warned that Britain would fall behind France and Germany in the next ten years if no action is taken.

Amid reports that chancellor George Osborne is now considering abandoning the aviation consultation until after the next general election in 2015, last month saw bitter disappointment from airlines and businesses.

"While this government struggles internally to establish a clear and defined hub airport policy for the future, competing nations will continue to take away the trade and commerce that should be welcomed in this country," Mike Carrivick, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives, said.