Heathrow Airport could sue taxpayers for “billions of pounds” if the third runway expansion goes wrong, Justine Greening has suggested.
The former transport secretary, whose Putney constituency lies under the flight path, said a clause in the Department for Transport’s agreement with Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) would mean the taxpayer footing the bill “when things go wrong”.
After years of wrangling over the London hub airport’s expansion, Theresa May’s Cabinet made the decision to press ahead with the plan on Tuesday.
Ms Greening secured an urgent question on the issue on Thursday after raising it during Prime Minister’s Questions the day before.
Quoting the clause in question, she said it sets out that HAL reserves the right “to pursue any and all legal and equitable remedies” in the event of an alternative scheme being preferred by the Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, or withdrawal of the government’s support.
But transport minister Jesse Norman said the clause had been taken out of context and the government would not “accept any liability for any of the costs that Heathrow Airport Limited has incurred or will incur in the future”.
Ms Greening, who is opposed to the expansion, said: “It paves the way for Heathrow recovering costs off the taxpayer when things go wrong, and as the Secretary of State himself said on Tuesday there are circumstances in which the runway could be built but not then used.
“Why was this term agreed to in the first place? Heathrow is a private company. It should therefore accept the risks.
“Is he confident that if we do end, as I suspect, in a situation where Heathrow expansion goes wrong, this company does not pursue the Government and taxpayers for potentially billions of pounds of costs?”
Mr Norman said the phrasing was “standard” and the government had taken advice from “distinguished leading counsel”.
However, he admitted that there “might be some circumstance” in which Heathrow could take legal action.
He said: “There might be some circumstance with some future government, possibly of a different political persuasion, which did create a contingent liability.
“They would then be under an obligation to present that to Parliament in the normal way and Heathrow Airport might in the exercise of its legal rights have the ability to sue them in some respect.”
Shadow transport minister Karl Turner said the statement “seems to be a devastating revelation and it’s simply beyond belief that when this bombshell lands the Secretary of State is not here to respond”.
But Mr Norman dismissed his comment, saying it was the “dampest of damp squibs” and “no indemnification has been given”.
The Department for Transport added: “It will be privately financed and the costs will not fall on the taxpayer.
“The point around potential financial liability has been taken out of context from a non-legally binding document, which makes clear that it gives Heathrow no legal right to any costs or losses from government should their scheme not proceed.”
The Cabinet approved the expansion of Heathrow on Tuesday and it will go to a vote in the Commons in the next few weeks.