Hundreds of flights should be moved from Heathrow to London’s three other airports as a way of preserving the hub status of Britain’s largest airport and avoiding the need for a third runway, Nick Clegg has said.
In a Guardian interview, the deputy prime minister insisted that the coalition would stand by its commitment not to build a third runway at Heathrow.
But Clegg said he accepted the need to preserve Heathrow’s status as a hub and that ministers were “not sticking our heads in the sand” as business groups warn that Britain is losing business as new routes open up to China from continental European airports.
Clegg’s intervention comes in the wake of a furious row over plans to expand the capital’s flight capacity after the chair of the Commons environment committee, Tim Yeo, challenged the prime minister on Tuesdayto perform a U-turn and start plans for a third runway at Heathrow, asking him whether he would be a “man or a mouse” about the decision.
Both the transport secretary, Justine Greening, and Number 10 subsequently ruled the idea out but now Clegg has suggested an alternative.
Clegg said: “Our position in the coalition is really clear. It is written in the coalition agreement. We are not going to give the go-ahead to a third runway at Heathrow.
“But of course I accept, everybody accepts, that the issue of the hub status of Britain’s airport capacity is a really important one for our economy. We are an open economy, we are a trading economy.
“When people say we are losing out on new routes to new parts of Asia and China and Latin America of course that is something you take seriously.
“But we are kind of lurching from instant solution to another. One moment it is Boris Island, now it is a third runway. No doubt people will be saying we should rebuild Stansted from scratch.
“There are people attached to Heathwick. There are lots of ideas. What we need to do as a government is sensibly say we are going to stick to our coalition agreement but we are not sticking our heads in the sand. We recognise it is an issue.”
The deputy prime minister said he personally favoured freeing up capacity from Heathrow, which is over-used, by moving hundreds of flights to three other airports around London: Luton, Stansted and Gatwick.
“I personally think if you look at the way in which capacity is distributed across London’s four airports there is something in the short to medium term we should be doing to try to re-jig that capacity so that Heathrow plays its role as the de facto hub airport.
“At the moment you have one airport, Heathrow, that is bursting to capacity and three others – Gatwick, Stansted and Luton – which are under capacity.
“There are a lot of flights going into Heathrow that aren’t necessary for its hub status. If you are being logical about this you would shift a lot of the current flights out of Heathrow to the other three airports, freeing up that hub capacity for Heathrow.
“You could do that and then have a longer term debate about how you deal with hub capacity over the coming decades.”