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Heathrow wins third runway Supreme Court case

Airport operator can seek planning permission for the runway

17 December 2020
How the expanded Heathrow Airport could look (Heathrow Airport)

 

The UK’s Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the proposed creation of a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

The runway scheme was blocked by the Court of Appeal in 2019, which ruled the Government’s airports strategy did not comply with UK climate targets. However, on 16 December the Supreme Court ruled that the strategy was legitimately based on less stringent climate targets that applied at the time it was agreed.

The Supreme Court ruling means that Heathrow Airport plc can now seek planning permission for the runway, but still needs to convince a public enquiry of the case for expansion. If planning inspectors approve the scheme, the UK Government will still have the final decision.

“This is the right result for the country, which will allow ‘Global Britain’ to become a reality,” said a Heathrow spokesperson. “Only by expanding the UK’s hub airport can we connect all of Britain to all of the growing markets of the world, helping to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in every nation and region of our country. 

“Demand for aviation will recover from Covid, and the additional capacity at an expanded Heathrow will allow Britain as a sovereign nation to compete for trade and win against our rivals in France and Germany. Heathrow has already committed to net zero and this ruling recognises the robust planning process that will require us to prove expansion is compliant with the UK’s climate change obligations, including the Paris Climate Agreement, before construction can begin.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a long-term opponent of Heathrow expansion, and even promised to lie down in front of bulldozers in order to prevent the runway affecting his West London constituency. The UK Government did not join the appeal against the previous Appeal Court verdict, which was made by Heathrow Airport plc.

A Government spokesperson said before the verdict: “We have always been clear that Heathrow expansion is a private sector project which must meet strict criteria on air quality, noise and climate change, as well as being privately financed, affordable, and delivered in the best interest of consumers.”

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “This is the right result for the country, which will allow ‘Global Britain’ to become a reality. Only by expanding the UK’s hub airport can we connect all of Britain to all of the growing markets of the world, helping to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in every nation and region of our country.

“Demand for aviation will recover from Covid, and the additional capacity at an expanded Heathrow will allow Britain as a sovereign nation to compete for trade and win against our rivals in France and Germany.  Heathrow has already committed to net zero and this ruling recognises the robust planning process that will require us to prove expansion is compliant with the UK’s climate change obligations, including the Paris Climate Agreement, before construction can begin.

“The Government has made decarbonising aviation a central part of its green growth agenda, through wider use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel as well as new technology. As passenger numbers recover, our immediate focus will be to continue to ensure their safety and to maintain our service levels while we consult with investors, government, airline customers and regulators on our next steps.”

The decision was welcomed by Back Heathrow, a pro-expansion campaign, which said it would boost the UK once it stops following EU trading rules on 31 December. Back Heathrow executive director Parmjit Dhanda told the BBC: “It is a huge moment for the UK as it moves towards an uncertain Brexit, but now with the confidence that international trade could be boosted by additional capacity at the country’s only hub airport. We believe this news reflects a unity of purpose between the highest court in the land and our parliament – which has already delivered a majority of 296 for sustainable expansion at Heathrow.”

Environmental campaigners have been challenging the runway project in the courts, arguing that it breaches the government’s Net Zero policy of removing almost all carbon emissions from the economy by 2050.

Campaigners are now set to appeal against the decision European Court of Human Rights. They are likely to argue that relying on outdated emissions targets is inconsistent with the right to life.

Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth, said: “This judgment is no ‘green light’ for expansion. It makes clear that full climate considerations remain to be addressed and resolved at the planning stage. Heathrow expansion remains very far from certain and we now look forward to stopping the third runway in the planning arena.

“With ever stronger climate policy commitments that Heathrow must meet, it remains unlikely it will ever get planning permission for the third runway. Friends of the Earth will fight it all the way. We are in this for people everywhere facing climate breakdown right now, and for the next generation who are being left to inherit a world changed for the worse.”

Friends of the Earth was represented by law firm Leigh Day and barristers David Wolfe QC of Matrix Chambers, Peter Lockley of 11 Kings Bench Walk Chambers and Andrew Parkinson of Landmark Chambers.

Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith said: “Our client can be extremely proud of what it has achieved for the environment, as we welcome the Supreme Court ruling that any future Government decision under the Airports National Policy Strategy (ANPS) to grant development consent for the third runway at Heathrow must be made in accordance with the obligations under the Paris Agreement and the carbon reduction targets in place at that time.

“Given those obligations and targets have become much more challenging since the ANPS was designated and are only expected to get tougher, especially in light of the advice by the Committee on Climate Change that, in order to meet Net Zero target, there should be no net increase in airport capacity, this judgment represents a huge advancement in our client’s continuing battle against the third runway and the climate catastrophe facing the world.”

Heathrow’s third runway: A legal history

  • The High Court ruled on 1 May 2019 that the Government’s decision to allow the building of a third runway at Heathrow Airport was lawful. This followed legal challenges brought by a number of environmental NGOs, pressure groups and local councils, which were heard collectively by the court in March 2019.
  • In October 2019 The Court of Appeal heard environmental group Friends of the Earth’s appeal against the High Court’s decision that the Government had not breached its sustainable development duties by allowing the expansion of Heathrow. Friends of the Earth brought one of the two successful legal challenges in the proceedings, focusing on the climate change and sustainable development impacts of a third runway.
  • In December 2020 the Supreme Court upholds Heathrow Airport appeal.

 
 
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