London Heathrow: Climate change activists lose legal battle to stop third runway

16 December 2020, 10:00 | Updated: 16 December 2020, 11:19

Climate activists have lost a long-running legal battle to stop a third runway at Heathrow
Climate activists have lost a long-running legal battle to stop a third runway at Heathrow. Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Climate activists have lost a long-running legal battle to stop a third runway at Heathrow.

The Supreme Court has overturned a previous Court of Appeal ruling in favour of environmental groups including Friends of the Earth.

Heathrow Airport Ltd, which owns and operates the airport, can now seek planning permission for the runway.

The west London airport said the decision will "allow global Britain to become a reality".

Opponents of the project described the outcome as "incredibly disappointing" but insisted there "remains real doubt" about whether the third runway will ever happen.

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The court was asked to consider if the Government had failed to take into account its own climate commitments when it approved the scheme.

Three leading judges had concluded in February that former transport secretary Chris Grayling did not take into account the Government's commitment to the Paris Agreement when setting out support for the project in an Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS).

The Paris Agreement commits signatories to tackling climate change by taking measures to limit global warming to well below 2C.

Heathrow Airport Ltd challenged the ruling at a two-day hearing before a panel of five justices in October.

Giving a summary of the Supreme Court's ruling on Wednesday, Lord Sales said Mr Grayling's decision was lawful and he was under "no obligation" to discuss the Paris Agreement separately in the ANPS.

The Court of Appeal considered the case earlier this year following a challenge by a group of councils in London affected by the expansion, environmental groups including Friends of the Earth and Plan B Earth, and London mayor Sadiq Khan.

The effect of the ruling was that current 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.

Tim Crosland, of Plan B, said the original decision by Mr Grayling to support the expansion made a "mockery" of the Government's commitment to show international leadership in the face of a climate emergency.

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."

Caroline Russell, Green Party transport spokesperson and London Assembly member, added: "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."

Some anti-expansion activists said there were still huge doubts over whether the runway would be built.

John Stewart, who chairs Hacan, said: "Despite this verdict, there remains real doubt about whether the third runway will ever see the light of day.

"Recovery is all that is on Heathrow's mind right now. Flight numbers are down nearly 90 per cent. The airport's expansion team has long since been disbanded.

"A third runway remains no more than a distant and uncertain prospect."

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."

Justine Bayley, a resident of Harmondsworth, who faces having to leave her home if the third runway is built, said: "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.

"I'm not giving up and continue to believe that sense will prevail, and that Heathrow expansion will never actually happen."