The government has still not decided what option to choose over London airport expansion, and will not make a definite choice before a cabinet committee meeting on Tuesday, the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, has insisted.
The committee will meet amid predictions that the government has already opted to push for expansion at Heathrow rather than the rival choice at Gatwick.
Grayling denied on Sunday that ministers had made up their minds. “No we haven’t,” he told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show. “That decision will be taken this week. And what people look slightly surprised by when I tell them is, actually, we’ve got a genuinely difficult decision.”
The options on offer are to build a third runway at Heathrow, extend an existing runway at the same airport, or build a second runway at Gatwick. All had their merits, Grayling insisted.
“Genuinely, it’s going to be a decision on Tuesday,” he said. “It’s a difficult one. All three are well-crafted proposals, and any one of them could bring benefits to the United Kingdom.”
Such is the political delicacy of the process that Theresa May has temporarilysuspended collective cabinet responsibility over the decision. This has been seen as another indicator of Heathrow being the preferred choice – both Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, and Justine Greening, the education secretary, oppose a Heathrow plan because of the potential impact on their west London constituencies.
Another London MP, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to trigger a byelection if Heathrow is selected, and would be likely to stand again as an independent with the support of his local party. He may resign at the point of a decision in favour of Heathrow or put this off until after a formal Commons vote on the issue.
In the wake of such threats, May has now put off a Commons vote possibly until winter 2017-18.
“There will be challenge and opposition, whatever option we take,” Grayling said. “The question here is we have to, in my view, take a decision that is in the interests of our nation – that delivers the best connectivity, the right approach for the future, at a time when we want to grow international trade links, open up new opportunities for Britain.
“Of course there will be opposition, of course there will be challenge, whatever we do.”
Next week’s decision would be the start of a process, Grayling added: “What happens is consultation, parliamentary scrutiny, a vote in parliament and then the chosen airport can deliver the very detailed planning application.”
In yet another sign of the likelihood of Heathrow being selected, a report has been leaked giving details of supposedly generous compensation packages on offer to people affected by the expansion.
Those living in about 4,500 homes that would either be demolished or badly affected would be offered the market value of their houses plus 25%, as well as all costs paid, the Sunday Times reported.
Also on Sunday, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, called for May to press ahead quickly with whichever option was selected.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Khan, who backs expansion at Gatwick, said that if Heathrow was selected, “we need to know now how long the legal challenges could delay delivery, and whether the obstacles are so big as to be even insurmountable”.