Heathrow Airport today won a Supreme Court challenge over the Government’s decision to give the go-ahead for a third runway.
A panel of five justices at the UK’s highest court allowed Heathrow to expand by building the controversial third runway after the Court of Appeal declared the plans were unlawful.
In February three top judges concluded that the expansion failed to take into account the Government’s commitments on climate change enshrined in the Paris Agreement.
Heathrow Airport Ltd, which owns and operates the airport, challenged that ruling at a two-day hearing before a panel of five justices in October.
Giving a summary of the Supreme Court’s ruling today, Lord Sales said then-Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s decision was lawful and he was under ‘no obligation’ to discuss the Paris Agreement separately in the Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS).
Lord Sales added: ‘(The court) finds that the Secretary of State did take the Paris Agreement into account. He was not legally required to give it more weight than he decided was appropriate, in line with the advice of the Committee on Climate Change.
‘The (Airports) National Policy Statement is not affected by any unlawfulness and is valid.’
The airport’s challenge was opposed by environmental charities Friends of the Earth and Plan B Earth – both of which argued that the appeal should be dismissed by the Supreme Court.
Heathrow called the ruling ‘the right result for the country’ and would ‘allow global Britain to become a reality’. A spokesman added: ‘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.’
But Justine Bayley, a resident of Harmondsworth, who faces having to leave her home if the third runway is built, said she was ‘disappointed’ by the result and had ‘hoped sense would prevail’.
‘Heathrow may have won this particular ruling, but there are many more hurdles in their way before they have final approval to build a third runway,’ she said. ‘I’m not giving up and continue to believe that sense will prevail, and that Heathrow expansion will never actually happen.’
The Court of Appeal considered the case following a challenge by a group of councils in London affected by the expansion, environmental charities including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Plan B Earth, and London mayor Sadiq Khan.
Heathrow Airport has won a Supreme Court challenge over the Government’s decision to give the go-ahead for a third runway
A panel of five justices at the UK’s highest court allowed Heathrow to expand by building the controversial third runway after the Court of Appeal declared the plans were unlawful
How this is the latest development in 17 years of wrangling over Heathrow Airport
December 2003: Labour ministers publish plans for a third runway at Heathrow, saying it is needed to keep pace with other European hubs.
January 2009: Gordon Brown green lights plans despite opposition from residents, environmental activists and many of his own MPs.
October 2009: As Opposition leader, David Cameron publicly states he will block Heathrow expansion.
May 2010: The Tory-Lib Dem Coalition emerges after the election, and rules out the west London plans.
September 2012: The idea is revived as an independent commission is set up to look at expansion of Heathrow and Gatwick, and a new airport in the Thames Estuary.
July 2015: The Airports Commission recommends Heathrow should get a new runway.
July 2016: David Cameron resigns as PM in the wake of the EU referendum, and is replaced by Theresa May – with no decision taken on Heathrow.
July 2017: Heathrow scales back proposals for a new terminal to reduce project costs.
June 2018: Revised plans with a £14billion price tag are approved by Cabinet, with the proviso that taxpayers will not face any cost.
June 25, 2018: Greg Hands resigns from government to vote against the National Policy Statement (NPS) – effectively outline planning permission. But Boris Johnson, who previously vowed to ‘lie down in front of bulldozers’, is abroad in Afghanistan when MPs vote in favour by a majority of 296.
December 2019: As PM, Boris Johnson does not change official policy on Heathrow but says he will ‘find a way’ of honouring his bulldozer pledge.
February 2020: The Court of Appeal rules that the NPS was unlawful as government had not considered its obligations under the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The Government says it does not support appealing the case, but Heathrow says it will go to the Supreme Court.
April 2020: The airport says all expansion plans will be pushed back by at least two years due to the disruption caused by the coronavirus.
May 2020: Heathrow admits it could be 10 to 15 years before the airport needs a third runway due to the crisis.
The effect of the ruling, which overturned a previous High Court decision made in May last year, was that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps would have to review the ANPS to ensure it accords with the commitments on climate change.
The Government did not oppose the court’s declaration that the ANPS was unlawful and did not seek permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The new runway northwest of Heathrow’s existing pair was recommended by the Davies Commission in 2015. The airport’s capacity would increase drastically from 480,000 takeoffs and landings each year to around 740,000 if the third runway were to be built.
Tim Crosland, a lawyer involved in the campaign against the plans, had announced that the justices would allow the expansion yesterday, breaking a legal embargo ‘as an act of civil disobedience’.
Responding to the verdict, Warren Kenny, acting general secretary of the GMB union, said: ‘Today’s ruling is a welcome boost at the end to a gruelling year for aviation workers who have seen their industry brought to its knees by the pandemic.
‘This judgment is a much-needed injection of hope for economic recovery and the creation of many thousands of good, unionised jobs at Heathrow and in the wider supply chain.
‘The Government has no more excuses now. It’s time for ministers to step up and back Heathrow and the wider aviation industry with the support it needs to get itself flying once again.’
Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith, who represented Friends of the Earth, 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 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.’
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell vowed to continue to fight the ruling ‘whether in the courts, in Parliament or in demos or occupations’.
He tweeted: ‘It is now down to Boris Johnson to fulfil his promise to oppose a 3rd runway if he’s to have any credibility as a local MP or as a Prime Minister seeking to tackle climate change.’
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: ‘This is incredibly disappointing news and takes us backwards in our response to the climate crisis.
‘Commercial interests have won out over the protection of our planet and the wellbeing of future generations.’
John Stewart, who chairs anti-Heathrow expansion group Hacan, said there ‘remains real doubt over whether the third runway will ever see the light of day’.
He argued that ‘recovery is all that is on Heathrow’s mind right now’ after the west London airport saw flight numbers plummet 90 per cent this year due to the hated pandemic. ‘A third runway remains no more than a distant and uncertain prospect,’ Mr Stewart added.
Caroline Russell AM, chairwoman of the London Assembly Environment Committee said: ‘Today’s Supreme Court decision on Heathrow Airport is a huge disappointment.
‘For years, the London Assembly along with other groups and local residents have routinely campaigned against the expansion of Heathrow Airport on grounds of noise and air pollution.
‘Heathrow is already the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide in the UK and is responsible for more CO2 emissions from international, scheduled passenger flights than any other airport globally.
‘Expansion is utterly incompatible with tackling the climate emergency and meeting targets set out in the Paris Agreement.’
Greenpeace UK’s executive director John Sauven said: ‘Heathrow Ltd have squeaked out a belated legal win but history has moved on.
‘Now the ball is in the Government’s court, it’s hard to imagine Boris Johnson wanting to resurrect a project that makes no business or environmental sense.
‘With a UK-hosted climate summit just a year away, the Government should draw a line under this sorry saga.
‘We need a frequent flyer levy that reduces demand without penalising those who fly only once a year or less. And we need investment in broadband that will encourage take-up of video conferencing instead of more business flights.’
Paul McGuinness, who chairs the No 3rd Runway Coalition, said the ruling ‘may yet prove irrelevant with so much having changed since Heathrow was recommended for expansion’.
He went on: ‘The assessments on air quality, noise, carbon and the economics are all out of date, with chunks having already been exposed as inadequate.
‘Moreover, the Government’s climate advisers say expanding Heathrow in the prosperous South East would mean restrictions on aviation in less advantaged regions. Such a drift in policy is not compatible with today’s levelling up agenda.
‘Heathrow’s campaign is mired in economic self-interest and, rather than allowing it to drift on interminably, we would urge the Government to look to the country’s wider interests and drop the Airports National Policy Statement altogether.’
Responding to the verdict, John Stewart, who chairs anti-Heathrow expansion group Hacan, said there ‘remains real doubt over whether the third runway will ever see the light of day’
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.’
Jenny Bates, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: ‘With global temperatures soaring, communities in the UK and around the world being displaced, and our ecological system on the brink of collapse, the last thing we need is to fill the skies with more planes.
‘Last week the Government was even warned by its own advisers at the Committee on Climate Change that there can be no net expansion of UK airport capacity unless the aviation industry achieves unexpectedly fast emissions cuts.
‘Given this warning, it is hard to see how Heathrow expansion can proceed. Boris Johnson must rethink the decision to approve the policy-supporting expansion of Heathrow airport and commit to no net airport expansion in line with the advice of independent advisers, the Committee on Climate Change.
‘The UK has the potential to lead the world in ambitious climate action but only if the Government takes this opportunity to steer the country to a sustainable future, making green jobs, low-carbon travel and the health and wellbeing of all of us a priority.
‘2021 will be a key year for this, when the eyes of the world turn to the UK as host of UN climate talks.’
Caroline Russell, Green Party transport spokesperson and London Assembly member, said: ‘Heathrow expansion would be a disaster for London.
‘It already disrupts the health and quality of life of more than three times as many people as any other airport in Europe.
‘Neither Londoners nor the planet can afford to see its size and damage grow.’
Richard Fremantle, who chairs pressure group Stop Heathrow Expansion, said: ‘It is official – 2020 is the worst year ever. Our climate is in a desperate state, our communities are going into yet another Christmas with Heathrow’s blight hanging over their heads.
‘The onus is now on the Government to rule out Heathrow expansion, as continuing to allow it to happen would be committing a massive retrograde step for our environment ahead of the UK hosting the COP26 summit next year.
‘Even the Government’s climate advisers say that Heathrow expansion would mean a reduction in capacity elsewhere across the country, at levels that will require closures.
‘The only people set to benefit from this project are Heathrow’s overpaid directors, who are due huge bonuses were spades ever to set foot in the ground.
‘It is now down to this Government to call Heathrow’s bluff and end this miserable project once and for all.’