The Supreme Court has this morning ruled that Heathrow’s controversial third runway expansion plans can go ahead.
The verdict means that the UK’s highest court has overturned the Court of Appeal’s February decision to block the £14bn project on environmental grounds.
However, in a year in which air travel has plummeted to historic lows due to the coronavirus pandemic, the need for a third runway at Heathrow has come under serious scrutiny.
The ruling hinged on whether Chris Grayling, transport secretary at the time the expansion project was approved, had taken into account the Paris Climate accords when giving the third runway the go ahead.
Environmental lawyers for groups including Friends of the Earth and Plan B argued that the Airports National Policy Statement had used a different global warming target to the one enshrined in the 2015 accords.
But in its judgement, the Supreme Court stated: “The Supreme Court unanimously allows the appeal finds that the Secretary of State did take the Paris agreements 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 national policy statement is not affected by any unlawfulness, and is valid.”
A spokesperson for the airport 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-19, 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.”
London First’s chief executive Jasmine Whitbread said the ruling should mark the “definitive end” of debate over the project.
“This project is an essential piece of the Global Britain jigsaw and it has been repeatedly endorsed by businesses, employees, trades unions, and MPs right across the country”, she added.
“Having left the European Union, our international connections will only become more important as we look to attract trade, talent, and tourism. This ruling reasserts the UK as a reliable partner and a sound place for international investors to do business.”
Campaigners: We will fight third runway ‘all the way’
Responding to the ruling, 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.”
The chair of fellow campaign group Stop Heathrow Expansion said that it was now up to the government – which was not one of the parties which challenged the February verdict – to put a stop to the project.
Richard Freemantle 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.”
Many local MPs have been fierce opponents of the expansion. In the past, Boris Johnson even threatened to lie in front of the bulldozers to prevent the project going ahead.
The ruling comes with global air travel still in dire straits as the coronavirus continues to rage around the world.
In November, passenger numbers at the UK’s biggest airport were down 88 per cent, the eighth straight month of decline.
As a result, the airport has elected to keep Terminal 4 closed until the end of 2021.
In the spring, Heathrow chief executive admitted that the runway would not be required for at least 15 years due to the downturn.