LONDON Britain should make a decision on where to build a new runway this summer, its transport minister said on Monday, dismissing concerns it could be further delayed by a referendum on EU membership.
Prime Minister David Cameron could reach a deal over Britain's ties with the European Union at a summit later this month, paving the way for a public vote on membership of the bloc as soon as June.
Transport Minister Patrick McLoughlin said he did not think a June referendum would derail the current timetable for deciding on expanding either Heathrow, Britain's busiest airport, or Gatwick, its second-busiest.
The decision has been repeatedly delayed.
"If the referendum is June 23, the date that has been talked about, then I think we still could be on target to make it (the decision) before the end of July," McLoughlin told a panel of lawmakers, adding that he did not know when the vote would be.
"I very much hope that by the summer of this year we will have a location decision," he said.
Heathrow's campaign to build a new runway received a blow in December when the government delayed the politically charged decision to summer 2016, saying it needed to do more work on the environmental impact of expansion.
Few disagree that London needs a new runway to remain economically competitive, but its location has been disputed for over 25 years and no new runway has been built in south east England since World War Two.
Heathrow, to the west of London, is operating at full capacity. It was recommended over Gatwick last year as the site for expansion by an independent commission.
In his first speech since the government announced it would postpone a final decision on airport expansion, Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said later on Monday that he was confident that the government would back Heathrow.
"After the EU referendum, the biggest issue for the Prime Minister is delivering the sustainable growth that will tackle the deficit and create that prosperity," he said.
"Only saying 'yes' to Heathrow expansion will help him deliver that vision."
He said that should the government make a decision to back Heathrow by this summer, a new runway could be built by 2025.
(Reporting by Sarah Young; editing by Stephen Addison and Alexander Smith)