Heathrow campaigners win case against third runway

The Court of Appeal has ruled that the government’s decision to allow the expansion of Heathrow Airport was unlawful because it did not take into account climate commitments, the Court of Appeal has ruled, handing a significant victory to opponents of the third runway.

The case was brought by environmental groups, local councils and the Mayor of London.

The judges, Lords Justice Lindblom, Singh and Haddon-Cave, said that the government did not take enough account of its commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change in giving its support to the third runway.  They noted that it was “legally fatal” to the Heathrow expansion policy that the government did not do so, as it meant that they had not followed UK policy in backing the plan.

Environmental groups and local residents were thrilled with the result, while Heathrow airport and business groups were more disappointed.  The government, meanwhile, announced that it would not be appealing the decision, noting in a statement by he Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, in an apparent attempt to distance itself from the project or any responsibility for the judgement, that the decision to approve the project was taken by the previous government and that Heathrow expansion is a private sector project.  

Shapps also noted that the government will “carefully consider this complex judgement and set out [their] next steps in due course”.  Of course, were the government to appeal this judgement and then lose the appeal, it could effectively end any future plans to expand Heathrow.

In terms of what this means for the future, environmentalists will now argue that there should be no third runway at all in this country, with Cait Hewitt, deputy director of the Aviation Environment Federation, claiming that “This ruling should mark the end of plans for any new runways in the UK.”  

However, it remains the case that the UK economy is crying out for the additional runway capacity and that the benefits this would bring to the UK economy are substantial.  According to the Department for Transport, the expansion would boost the economy by top to £61bn and create up to 77,000 local jobs by 2030.  On top of this, more and more people are travelling by plane and if London doesn’t expand its capacity, other cities will, raising the prospect of a double whammy whereby overall global emissions are not cut at all whilst at the same time the UK loses its position as a global transport hub, and all the economic benefit that comes with it.  This is a particular concern at a time when the country is trying to impress an image of ‘Global Britain’ upon the world and to galvanise its economy as it move on from the EU.

Indeed, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, Adam Marshall, said that “Without expansion, firms risk losing crucial regional connectivity and access to key markets across the world”.

Surely, therefore, the government will build a new runway in the country to create this extra capacity needed for these benefits?  Indeed, in his statement Shapps also noted that “This government is absolutely committed [from] the Prime Minister down to airport expansion, but, we want to make sure that expansion is environmentally friendly.

The question then is will they look to build it elsewhere, or will they try to adapt the Heathrow project to make it workable?  It should not be forgotten that the previous government appointed an Airports Commission to look into this issue, which lasted for three years.  The clear conclusion of this Commission was that, taking all factors into account, Heathrow was the best place for it.

However, any decision or action will have to take into consideration the Climate Change Act, which mandates practically zero emission by 2050.  There is, at present, no way of making aeroplanes zero carbon.  No doubt it will be possible to create some clever carbon-offsetting workaround, but this will be complicated and quite possibly laborious.  Nonetheless, the judges did say, in their judgement, that a third runway could go ahead in the future, as long as it is in keeping with the UK’s climate policy.  As a statement from the CBI said, “it’s clear that the government and aviation industry need to work closely to agree a robust decarbonisation plan”, also adding that “It is vital that the government and Heathrow work closely together to remedy the fair concerns raised by the judgement and keep this project on track.  Opportunities for future trade will not wait”.

Nevertheless, as noted above, there are those who don’t accept a new runway int he country at all as a foregone conclusion.  Green MP Caroline Lucas claims that the expansion proposal “makes a mockery” of the government’s 2050 carbon neutral strategy, while Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth, said that “This judgement has exciting wider implications for keeping climate change at the heart of all planning decisions.”

“It’s time for developers and public authorities to be held to account when it comes to the climate impact of their damaging developments.”

Indeed, as Rundle seems to imply, this judgement raises a further interesting question, one that could well be one of the issues of the coming generation or even generations – what should be the balance between the economy, competitiveness and business on one hand, and the environment on the other.  

Of course, many would argue that it is through a strong economy, strong competition, and strong business that we will achieve the breakthroughs needed to create the technology to move to a carbon neutral future.  Yet many climate activists seem to adopt an absolutist approach to climate campaigning, arguing that solutions must be all or nothing, and they are, at present, indulged by the authorities (witness the recent lack of reaction to the vandalism of the lawn of Trinity College, Cambridge).  This question could well be one of the major issues and tension points of the coming years.

In the meantime, though, however it works out, one thing’s for sure – this long running Heathrow saga is going to keep on running.

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