The planning inquiry into the construction of a second runway at Stansted airport has been put on hold by MPs due to uncertainly over its future ownership.
Hazel Blears, the communities and local government secretary, has bowed to growing pressure from opponents of the second runway and agreed that the planning inquiry be delayed.
BAA applied a year ago for planning permission for the £2.5bn project to double capacity to 68m passengers a year, making it the current size of Heathrow airport. The runway would be the first full length runway to be built in the south-east of England for over 60 years.
The Competition Commission is expected to demand the break-up of BAA later this month, calling for the sale of Gatwick and Stansted, along with either Glasgow or Edinburgh.
BAA has hinted that it will surrender Stansted on the proviso it is granted permission to build a third runway at Heathrow. The buyers of the Essex airport are expected to want to alter the nature of the BAA development scheme.
“I am certain that we should neither be seen to second-guess the contents of the final report [by the Commission] nor the response of the airport operator until after they have had time to consider its findings and implications,” said Hazel Blears.
She added that a planning inquiry, expected to last 18 months and starting shortly after the publication of the Competition Commission report, would not allow BAA sufficient time to consider its findings fully.
The government has been firmly backing the expansion since publication of its air transport white paper in December 2003. The white paper originally envisaged that the second Stansted runway would be in operation by 2011-12, ahead of a third runway at Heathrow. However the date has been increasingly shifted backwards due to fierce opposition and the global downturn.
Last month BAA conceded that the second runway could be delayed by two years due to the downturn causing a sharp drop-off in passenger volumes. The original opening date has now being shifted back 2017.
“We will not be hitting the 35 million in 2015 that we had expected. That is due to the downturn in the economy that is affecting aviation,” said a BAA spokesman.
Passenger numbers dropped 6% last year and were flat in 2007 with fewer travellers using Stansted. The slump was exacerbated by Ryanair and easyJet, the airport’s largest operators, shifting some services to other London airports.