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Heathrow third runway back on the agenda after Supreme Court backing

16 Dec 20 The Supreme Court has backed Heathrow Airport’s legal battle to build a £14bn third runway.

Heathrow Airport has won its case, at the Supreme Court, that the government’s Airports National Policy Statement did not breach UK law, as argued by opponents to the airport’s expansion.

The Supreme Court has overturned a previous ruling made in February by the Court of Appeal. The February hearing decided that when the Department for Transport produced its Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS) in June 2018, effectively enabling Heathrow expansion, it had failed to address climate change impact, as it is legally required to do under the Planning Act 2008. That had the effect of making the ANPS void, preventing Heathrow from building its third runway. (The ANPS does not grant development consent but is a prerequisite.)

This has now been overturned. Click here to read the full judgment of the Supreme Court.

The initial legal challenge was brought by campaign groups Friends of the Earth and Plan B.

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.”

Friends of the Earth said: “Despite today’s judgment, a third runway at Heathrow is far from a foregone conclusion.  Developers will still need to address the UK’s climate commitments at planning stage. Whatever happens next you can be sure we’ll resist it every step of the way.”

Tim Crosland, a lawyer for Plan B, risked prosecution by revealing the outcome of the Supreme Court ruling ahead of its publication. He said: “This will be treated as a ‘contempt of court’ and I am ready to face the consequences. I have no choice but to protest the deep immorality of the Court’s ruling.

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“Chris Grayling took his decision to approve Heathrow expansion in June 2018.  That was two and a half years on from the Paris Agreement. Yet he assessed the climate impacts of Heathrow expansion against the historic temperature limit of 2˚C warming - which the UK Government and the international community had rejected as inadequate and dangerous in 2015. He did not inform the public or Parliament that that is what he did, but it became clear through the disclosure in this litigation that that is what he did.

“Had he assessed Heathrow expansion against the 1.5˚C temperature goal in the Paris Agreement, he could not have approved it. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global decarbonisation by 2050 would still leave a 50% chance of exceeding 1.5˚C (even assuming the rapid development of negative emission technologies). According to the government’s own figures, Heathrow expansion would mean 40 million tonnes of CO2 by 2050, just from UK aviation. Those two figures cannot be reconciled.

“In February 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that Mr Grayling should have relied on the Paris Agreement temperature limit (not the 2˚C limit) and consequently ruled his decision unlawful. Boris Johnson informed Parliament that the government would accept that decision and abide by the Paris Agreement.”

Hannah Vickers, chief executive of the Association for Consultancy &Engineering (ACE) said: “The carbon challenges for the aviation sector are well understood, but expansion at Heathrow is not necessarily incompatible with a carbon-free future. These kinds of decision need to be made as part of a comprehensive Net Zero strategy for the country, not taken in isolation.

“Today’s court ruling does mean that the major project is one step closer however, and the £14bn plan is proof that private investment can play a key role in our economic recovery.”

“The core take-away is that we should update our National Policy Statements to ensure they are compatible with Net Zero ambitions. This would ensure the right future infrastructure projects can proceed with confidence while avoiding unnecessary uncertainty and legal delays.”

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