Opposition to a new airport in the West Midlands is a sign of things to come for a government desperate to increase airport capacity
The government's programme to increase airport capacity in the UK has hit turbulence. A band of local politicians and interest groups is fighting plans for a £6.5bn airport in the West Midlands, the proposal of which was put forward in July in a three-month consultation paper on the future of air transport.

Transport secretary Alistair Darling can expect to encounter continued protests from local groups opposed to the pollution and noise a new airport brings. The Midland opposition group says that a new airport would lead to the loss of greenbelt land and increased noise pollution. Instead of building a new airport Andy King, MP for Rugby and Kenilworth, believes that Birmingham airport could expand to deal with extra air traffic in the Midlands.

The consultation paper states that the biggest pressure to increase airport capacity is in the South-east. Darling predicts that the number of passengers using south-eastern airports will rise from 117 million to 350 million by 2030, and he warns that for the government, "doing nothing is not an option". Without expansion, Darling says, European competitors such as Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam will attract business from London.

Building anywhere in the South-east is likely to encounter staunch opposition. Terminal 5 at Heathrow took nine years to get planning permission and the government acknowledges that building another runway in west London would lead to more noise and pollution. As well as annoying the local electorate, a larger Heathrow could also lead to nitrogen oxide levels exceeding EU limits by 2015. Darling has already said that the government would only find favour with a third runway at Heathrow if the UK could meet its international obligations.

The proposals to build a new airport at Cliffe in Kent on the Thames estuary or expand Stansted in Essex look much likelier options. An airport with three to four runways at Cliffe would be catastrophic for bird populations and nature reserves – but not for people, as the area is sparsely populated.

Expansion of Stansted airport would also be preferable to Heathrow as it lies in deep countryside, and unlike Cliffe it already has a transport infrastructure in place. The government is about to embark on local consultation exercises on both sites, lending weight to the view that this is where airline expansion is most likely to take place. The consultation period closes on 30 November and the white paper will be published next year.

Wherever extra runways are built, the government will be up against vociferous local opposition groups. It will have the support of big businesses, though, and the CBI says that the provision of three new runways is the least the government can do to meet future demand for air travel.

The principle options are:

  • In addition to, or instead of the Heathrow option, expansion of Stansted to include one, two or three new runways

  • Possible development of a new airport of a new airport at Cliffe in north Kent

  • Making maximum use of existing capacity at airports in the South east

  • No additional runway at Luton, but two options for a longer runway and parallel taxiway

  • Possible development of Alconbury as a specialised air freight/low-cost passenger airport.