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Page last updated at 15:59 GMT, Friday, 18 July 2008 16:59 UK

Friends in High Places

Panorama investigates allegations that the government has been in cahoots with BAA over the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

How can the government lecture the country on going green while backing a third runway at Heathrow Airport which will dramatically increase air travel and raze a village to the ground?

Not without cynically twisting the science around air pollution and noise, according to critics.

The environment is one of Labour's big issues, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown himself saying that protecting it is "one of the greatest challenges of our time".

Graphic on CO2 emissions

From the Kyoto protocols to the Stern report on the environment, Mr Brown says that Labour are seeking to place climate on the agenda.

Yet Mr Brown is backing a third runway at Heathrow - an expansion which could mean more carbon emissions, noise and pollution.

Panorama has investigated this apparent contradiction, uncovering critics who say that data has been ignored and massaged and that there is an overly cosy relationship between BAA, the owners of Heathrow airport, and Downing Street.

Nitrogen Dioxide levels

At the heart of the argument for expansion is the need to maintain Heathrow's status as a world gateway - stop expansion it is argued, and Britain will lose out to other countries better connected to the globe.

BAA's solution is a third runway and sixth terminal which would allow an extra 220,000 flights a year by 2030.

Graph showing Heathrow flight numbers

The government first committed itself to expansion five years ago, but only if the plan meets stringent tests on air quality and does not break European laws on pollution.

This is a huge problem since Panorama has found evidence that even with its current capacity Heathrow would breach European Union laws which will come into effect in 2015.

The legislation sets limit on permissible levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), a by-product of cars and planes, which creates breathing difficulties in the very old and the very young.

So how can adding a further 220,000 flights a year possibly lead to a reduction, rather than increase in this problem?

Non-existent planes

By examining documents gained under a Freedom of Information request Panorama has discovered that one of BAA's key arguments that this was an achievable target was that by 2030 we will be flying in more efficient planes.

Map of Heathrow noise footprint

But Panorama has discovered that not only do the planes BAA describes not exist, but they are not even in the development pipeline.

Another problem is noise.

Key to the expansion plan is the "noise footprint," the area of London which the government accepts is badly affected by aircraft noise.

The government says this footprint will not be allowed to get worse.

But Panorama has uncovered information that suggests that the government is ignoring warnings that the problem is even worse than previously thought.

'Business first'

So why is the government so keen to press ahead with expansion?

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone told Panorama that since Labour took power the government's defining quality has been that "if a businessman goes to the door of Number 10 and says 'I don't want this' they get their way".

And Panorama's investigation has highlighted a cosy relationship between Downing Street and the aviation industry in which a number of people who have worked for the government are now holding major positions within the aviation industry.

A set up which critics say has led to a situation where the demands of big business come first and the environment second.

Panorama: Friends in High Places will be on BBC One at 8.30pm on Monday 21 July 2008.

Map of proposed Heathrow expansion

Watch Friends in High Places
31 Jul 08 |  Panorama

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