Charles Wright: The argument about Heathrow expansion is far from over

Charles Wright: The argument about Heathrow expansion is far from over

If you thought the arguments about a third runway at Heathrow were over when the High Court comprehensively rejected a swathe of legal challenges earlier this year, think again.

Heathrow Airport Limited were upbeat back in May, claiming the ruling showed that the debate on expansion had been “had and won” and that the company was now “getting on with delivering the once-in-a-generation project that will connect Britain to global growth”.

The controversial scheme, priced by Heathrow at £14 billion, is one of the largest infrastructure projects in Europe, involving the demolition of 761 homes north of the airport, diverting waterways, rerouting roads including the A4, and sinking the M25 into a tunnel under the new runway.

Boosting flight numbers from 480,000 to 740,000 a year, with capacity for 130 million passengers compared to 80 million in 2018, the development would see the runway in operation by 2026 and the whole project finished by 2050.

Heathrow has just concluded a 13-week consultation on its plans, the precursor to an application for a Development Consent Order, effectively planning permission under the process set out in the Planning Act 2008 for dealing with “nationally significant” infrastructure proposals. The company expects to submit its application next year.

But the company faces major hurdles, beginning this month with campaigners launching a new bid in the Court of Appeal to overturn last year’s government approval for the controversial plans. The hearing will begin on October 17.

Objectors include Hillingdon council, which covers Heathrow, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Richmond, Wandsworth, Hammersmith & Fulham and Windsor and Maidenhead councils, alongside Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth as well as the Heathrow Hub group promoting alternative expansion plans.

The renewed legal challenge focuses on the impact of a third runway on climate change, arguing that the decision to back Heathrow expansion is at odds with UK obligations under the Paris Agreement to limit global warming, as well as concerns about air quality, increased traffic and noise.

The stakes are high: according to Friends of the Earth legal head Will Rundle. “This case is about saving the planet from catastrophic climate change,” he said as leave to appeal was agreed. “Expanding Heathrow will only benefit a minority of people, while leaving us all to suffer the awful impact on the environment.”

The London Assembly reiterated its objections in August. “The impact of noise and air pollution, increased congestion and the demolition of villages in west London are all reasons why the third runway plans should be dropped.  The UK has committed to net zero carbon emissions and the expansion undermines this commitment,” said Assembly environment committee chair and Green Party Assembly Member Caroline Russell.

While the Heathrow argument has, as the High Court pointed out, “engaged political and public debate for decades”, the current saga goes back to 2010, when the coalition government scrapped third runway plans approved by the Labour government and set up an independent airports commission to look again at “the scale and timing of any requirement for additional capacity to maintain the UK’s position as Europe’s most important aviation hub.”.

The commission explored two other options to meet the need for extra capacity – a second runway at Gatwick and the Heathrow Hub proposal to extend the existing northern runway – before backing the third runway plan.

The government’s airports national policy statement followed – a statement of planning policy under the 2008 Act which gave the green light to the third runway and set in train the development consent order process. Overwhelmingly approved by MPs in June last year, it is this statement which is now under renewed legal challenge. 

The 415 to 119 parliamentary vote was itself controversial. Tory MPs were whipped to support the plan but Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary, was on business overseas and did not vote, despite famously pledging to “lie down in front of bulldozers” to stop the expansion. Labour allowed a free vote which saw a majority of their MPs back the third runway despite the party officially opposing it. The MPs in the capital who backed the plan – 17 Labour and 10 Tory – had “let down Londoners,” assembly member Russell said in a statement including a list of how London MPs had voted.  

Even if this month’s appeal against the High Court ruling fails, Heathrow faces a further hurdle next year when it submits its development consent order application. The process allows for six months’ examination of the plans by a panel of planning inspectors, including consideration of written representations and public hearings. A further six months is allowed for the inspectors to report and for the transport secretary to make the final decision, with the possibility of a further legal challenge at that point.

And while a substantial coalition of support for the third runway remains in place – business organisations including the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry and London First, as well as Unite the Union – the debate is now taking place in the new context of climate emergency.

Government lawyers confirmed at the High Court hearing that increased carbon emissions having a “material impact” on the government’s ability to meet carbon reduction targets “would be a reason to refuse development consent”.

The independent committee on climate change (CCC), set up under the Climate Change Act 2008 to advise government on emissions targets, warned last month that aviation was set to be “the largest emitting sector in the UK” by 2050, which is the government’s target date to achieve “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions. With technological advances unlikely to facilitate zero-carbon aviation by that date, airport capacity strategies should be reassessed and demand restrained, CCC chair Lord Deben said in a letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps

“Demand cannot continue to grow unfettered over the long-term,” he wrote. “Specifically, investments will need to be demonstrated to make economic sense in a net-zero world and the transition towards it. Current planned additional airport capacity in London, including the third runway at Heathrow, is likely to leave at most very limited room for growth at non-London airports.”

The Department for Transport has pledged to “robustly defend” its position at this month’s appeal, but Shapps has already sounded a note of caution. “There are questions about whether the whole plan stacks up,” he told Sky News in August. “There are of course court cases to do with emissions, that sort of thing so what we’ve said is we’ll watch that process very carefully.”

Whatever you think about a third runway, one thing is certain – the argument is not over.

Meanwhile, on the other side of London, opposition is mounting to London City Airport’s expansion plans, with public consultation running until October 18. The capital’s smallest airport, on the Royal Docks site in Newham, is seeking to increase flights to 151,000 a year, from 111,000 currently, and almost double passenger numbers to 11 million by 2035.

Local opposition is being marshalled by campaign group HACAN East, sister organisation to Heathrow campaigners HACAN, and Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham councils have joined the London Assembly’s environment committee in opposing the plans.

The committee this week set out detailed concerns around noise, increased weekend flights, air pollution and carbon emissions. 

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Categories: Analysis

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