A Flight of Fancy?  -  Heathrow third runway approved by Supreme Court

December 20, 2020 7:43 AM
By Councillor Dave Busby
Originally published by Babergh South Suffolk Liberal Democrats

b5al (Photo by Tomek Baginski on Unsplash)In a strange twist of timing Heathrow Airport's third runway expansion plans get the go-ahead, after the Supreme Court overturned a decision by the Court of Appeal to block the project. Despite the largest ever decline in flying (due to CoVid 19) and the increasing spotlight on climate change we are now facing a huge bill for this construction project.

The Legal Argument

Back in 2018 the then-Secretary of State Chris Grayling gave the green light for the project but his decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal who ruled that he had acted unlawfully by failing to give sufficient weight to the UK's climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement. In the latest round of decision ping pong the Supreme Court decided that he "was not legally required to give it more weight than he decided was appropriate." This means the £14bn runway project can now move to the planning process, where it will face new challenges on climate change, air pollution and economic grounds.

Government's Perspective

The decision keeps alive the promise that Boris Johnson, who is MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (near the airport), made - to lie in front of bulldozers to prevent the runway being built. I can understand you having mixed feelings - it might just be worth granting planning permission to see the blockbuster - Boris v The Bulldozer.

The Prime Minister's press secretary said that the "point the PM would make now" is that "any expansion must meet strict criteria on air quality, noise and climate change and the Government will come forward with a response shortly". The Conservative election manifesto vowed that no new public money would go to the project, leaving Heathrow Airport to make the business case for investment.

Meanwhile, the UK has set new legally binding climate targets since the initial decision was made in 2018, committing to become net zero on carbon emissions by 2050 and will next year consult on its aviation policy in light of that commitment. The Government's climate change advisers have said there should be no net increase in airport capacity in their latest advice on meeting the net zero target.

Heathrow's Dilemma

Travel, and flying in particular, faces a very uncertain future. The coronavirus pandemic is now on its 3rd wave across the world and looks as though it will be affecting us throughout 2021. With Brexit, people adjusting to remote working and economies facing a downturn it is unclear when the desire to fly might bounce back.

In May, Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye said the airport expansion would be dependent on the economic recovery and not happen before 2030. But on Wednesday, Heathrow came out fighting by vowing to pursue the expansion as this was the right result for the country, enabling Global Britain to become a reality. They said "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."

They did acknowledge that they would now have to "prove expansion is compliant with the UK's climate change obligations" and would "consult with investors, government, airline customers and regulators on our next steps".


Friends of the Earth noted that the judgement is no 'green light' for expansion and campaigners have said they will challenge as far as the European Court of Human Rights. But, whichever way you look at it, the decision is a setback for environmental campaigners, who had hoped the February decision by the Court of Appeal had effectively killed the new runway at Britain's busiest airport.

Environmental campaigners were determined to dismiss claims that the Supreme Court's ruling was a victory for the runway and Extinction Rebellion said they expected to see more direct action at Heathrow following the ruling.

In Conclusion

The irony is that by the time this gets final approval and is actually completed the climate WILL have changed and Britain will be 'enjoying' Mediterranean weather and there will be no need for us all to traipse south for the Summer. Isn't the motoring equivalent, no new diesel or petrol cars after 2030 but giving planning permission for an oil well? No doubt there are a few more twists and turns to go and Boris may not have to live out his promise……. Shame.

December 2020