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Heathrow on new runway shortlist

London, Dec. 17 (Reuters): Britain should consider building a new runway at one of London’s two biggest airports — Heathrow and Gatwick — to address a capacity crunch that economists suggest could slow economic growth, a government advisory body said today.

The recommendations, which are not binding and subject to further revision, are likely to stir up a political debate about how to deal with what will be one of the country’s biggest infrastructure projects this century.

Lawmakers and business leaders agree that Britain needs new runways to remain economically competitive. But the idea of building extra capacity in London is unpopular with many voters who worry about aircraft noise, pollution and safety.

Passions ran high during Britain's last 2010 election over a possible expansion at Heathrow, with supporters of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in west London helping make sure the now ruling coalition dropped the plans.

With no commission decision until after a general election in May next year, the Conservative-led coalition government has been careful not to favour any option and most politicians are keen to avoid being dragged into the emotive debate.

“The capacity challenge is not yet critical but it will become so if no action is taken soon, and our analysis clearly supports the provision of one net additional runway by 2030,” the Airports Commission said in a statement.

In a report, the commission shortlisted three proposals, two of which were to expand Britain’s biggest airport, Heathrow. As well as building a new runway, the airport could also have one of its runways extended, the report said.

An idea to build a new airport on the Isle of Grain to the east of London should also remain an option, it said. But it did not formally add it to its shortlist, saying it would only decide whether to include it before the end of the year.

The commission, led by Howard Davies, the former head of the Financial Services Authority, must make its final proposals on how and where to expand airport capacity by the summer of 2015.

Heathrow’s strong showing on the list represents a turnaround from three years ago when the two-party coalition scrapped plans to expand the airport, overturning the previous government's decision to go ahead with a third runway there.

Colin Matthews, chief executive of Heathrow, said he was unsurprised by the change in the airport's fortunes, calling the case for his airport “strong”, but cautioned that there was a long way to go for all of the expansion options.

London’s high-profile mayor Boris Johnson, who has been tipped as a possible rival to Prime Minister David Cameron, is opposed to the expansion of Heathrow and supports the building of a new airport to the east of London.

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