London’s Court of Appeal produced a most interesting surprise on February 27 as it has thrown London Heathrow’s third runway expansion plans out of the window. For now, that is.
Airport expansion plans have found their Waterloo in other court cases before, but what makes today’s ruling different is its motivation. “We have concluded, in particular, that the designation of the Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS) was unlawful by reason of a failure to take into account the Government’s commitment to the provisions of the Paris Agreement on climate change, concluded in December 2015 and ratified by the United Kingdom in November 2016”, the Court says.
This makes this the first Court ruling on airport planning based on the Paris Agreement, to which the UK government is committed to reducing the emission of carbon dioxide by 50 percent of the 1990-levels in 2050. Local authorities and environmentalist groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Plan B have consistently claimed that the plan was contradictory to the agreement.
The appellant Court has stayed away from any claims made by Heathrow that it has had previous assurances from the Secretary of State on the implementation of the northern runway. “We have made it clear that we are not concerned in these proceedings with the political debate and controversy to which the prospect of a third runway being constructed at Heathrow has given rise. That is none of the court’s business. We have emphasized that the basic question before us in these claims is an entirely legal question. We are required – and only required – to determine whether the Divisional Court was wrong to conclude that the ANPS was produced lawfully.”
“The Paris Agreement ought to have been taken into account by the Secretary of State in the preparation of the ANPS and an explanation given as to how it was taken into account, but it was not. That, in our view, is legally fatal to the ANPS in its present form. As we have explained, the normal result in a successful claim for judicial review must follow, that the court will not permit unlawful action by a public body to stand.”
Johnson won’t fight ruling
Where does this leave Heathrow’s plans? The Johnson government has said it will not fight the ruling, as it subscribes to the Paris Agreement. PM Boris Johnson and former London mayor himself has been a staunch opponent of the plan, which he has described as a waste of money.
Here, he has had a surprising backer in International Airlines Group’s Willie Walsh, the dominant player at Heathrow that at first glance would seem to benefit from the northern runway and the 700 extra flights per day, 740.000 movements per year and capacity of 130 million passengers it would bring. On numerous occasions, Walsh has described the plan as too expensive.
In December Walsh said: “Allowing an expanded airport that is considerably more expensive than our European neighbors would be an own goal as we need to compete on the world stage. An independent study would ensure Heathrow expansion is cost-effective and stop the CAA, as regulator, allowing consumers to be taken for a ride. To ask customers to stump up vast sums in advance for a runway that may not get built, based only on Heathrow’s cost proposals, is unacceptable”.
For now, Heathrow’s neighboring communities have reason to celebrate as Longford and Harmondsworth have been saved from demolition and citizens from sleepless nights, although residents said on the BBC News that ten years ago they had hoped the expansion – which was to run a consultation phase from April to June – had been put on hold definitely.
Heathrow prepares appeal
Indeed, the fight isn’t over yet, Heathrow has said in a statement: “The Court of Appeal dismissed all appeals against the government – including on “noise” and “air quality” – apart from one which is eminently fixable. We will appeal to the Supreme Court on this one issue and are confident that we will be successful. In the meantime, we are ready to work with the Government to fix the issue that the court has raised. Heathrow has taken a lead in getting the UK aviation sector to commit to a plan to get to Net Zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Accord. Expanding Heathrow, Britain’s biggest port and only hub, is essential to achieving the Prime Minister’s vision of Global Britain. We will get it done the right way, without jeopardizing the planet’s future. Let’s get Heathrow done.”
Heathrow expects to need some six months to prepare the appeal. The fight isn’t over yet…