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Heathrow expansion could take off despite opposition

A British Airways Airbus A380 at Heathrow Airport in London.
David Dyson | British Airways

The U.K. should build a new runway at Heathrow Airport in London, already one of the world's busiest airports, according to a new report by a commission set up by the government.

The announcement by the Airports Commission on Wednesday is likely to cause division at the top of the governing Conservative Party, as several of the party's leading lights have constituencies which could be affected by the extra noise and pollution expected from greater air traffic.

The government does not have to accept the recommendation, and Prime Minister David Cameron has previously pledged not to build a third runway at Heathrow.

Howard Davies, the chairman of the commission, said in a statement: "Heathrow ... provides the greatest benefits for business passengers, freight operators and the broader economy."

The news was welcomed enthusiastically by British business groups, who urged the government to make a quick decision to keep the U.K. competitive and attractive to international business. Heathrow is facing competition from Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam as a hub for international travel. Its expansion under the plan recommended by the commission would cost close to £20 billion ($31.41).

The news boosted the share price of Spanish airports operator Ferrovial, which is the biggest investor in Heathrow, in early trading Wednesday.

"The government must commit to the decision now, and get diggers in the ground at Heathrow swiftly by 2020," John Cridland, director-general of U.K. business group the CBI, said in a statement.

"Growing airport capacity in the south east (of England) is absolutely critical to the whole of the U.K.'s economic future - it simply isn't an optional 'nice to do.' Each day the government delays taking the decision, the U.K. loses out as our competitors reap the rewards and strengthen their trade links."

John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, called for an "irreversible government commitment" to expanding the airport before the end of the next Parliament in 2020.

Residents of west London and other areas in the south east of England who would be potentially affected by the expansion are likely to be less excited, although the report recommended no extra night flights to address noise pollution.

Zac Goldsmith, a potential Conservative Party candidate to succeed Boris Johnson as Mayor of London, is MP for Richmond, one of the areas most affected by noise from Heathrow planes and has campaigned against the expansion of the airport.

Theresa May, the home secretary, Justine Greening, secretary of state for international development, and Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, are also among the cabinet members whose constituencies would be affected.

- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle