Boris Johnson looks on the brink of killing off Heathrow’s third runway plan today after campaigners won a crucial legal battle.
The government has effectively washed its hands of the battle for the £14billion project after the Court of Appeal ruled that it had not yet met environmental standards – with No10 confirming that it will not take the case to the Supreme Court.
Judges declared that the Government had failed to take account of its commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change when setting out its support for the airport expansion in its National Policy Statement (NPS).
The Prime Minister – who as London Mayor once vowed to ‘lie down in front of bulldozers’ to prevent the new runway – now seems set to pull support for the scheme. Asked about the remark during the election campaign, Mr Johnson said he would ‘find some way of honouring that promise’.
There are claims that Mr Johnson and his aides have been looking at alternatives to the plans, including enlarging Gatwick in Sussex.
Heathrow has said it will appeal the judgement, arguing that the issues raised by the court were ’eminently fixable’.
It has warned that failure to go ahead with the project – which has been in preparation for more than 15 years – would destroy hopes for ‘global Britain’. Business groups also voiced dismay at the latest setback to efforts to increase aviation capacity.
However, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government had ‘taken the decision not to appeal’, and insisted any expansion will be a ‘private sector project’.
In a statement to Parliament, he noted that the NPS had been produced under the ‘previous government’.
‘It is critical that vital infrastructure projects, including airport expansion, drive the whole UK economy, level up our regions, and unite our country,’ he added.
There are serious doubts over whether such a massive project can proceed without active government support.
Environmental campaigners celebrate the Court of Appeal’s decision today to block plans for a third runway
Boris Johnson (pictured at a homeless centre today) is personally against the scheme and when he was London mayor he promised to ‘lie down… in front of those bulldozers’ to stop the runway being built
A computer-generated image released last year of how Heathrow airport could look with a third runway
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government will not back an appeal to the Supreme Court, saying any expansion will be ‘industry led’
The challenge today was brought by a group of councils in London, environmental charities including Greenpeace, Friends Of The Earth and Plan B, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
The UN’s Paris Agreement, which came into force in November 2016, commits signatories to tackling climate change by taking measures to limit global warming to well below 2C.
What happens now on Heathrow? Boris Johnson holds future of project in his hands
Judges were asked to rule on whether the Government had considered its duties under the Paris Agreement on climate change when supporting the third runway.
The issue revolved around the official national policy statement (NPS) – which set out ministers’ views on the project, and has previously been endorsed by the Commons in a vote.
The Court of Appeal decided the document did not sufficiently explain how the runway could be compatible with the Paris Agreement.
The judges stressed that did not mean the project could not go ahead – but the NPS would need to be rethought.
Boris Johnson has always personally opposed the runway, and the government has declared it will not support Heathrow’s intention to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
It is unclear what prospects for success the appeal would have without government backing.
And it is very difficult to see how such a massive infrastructure project can happen without active support from ministers.
In a summary of the ruling, Lord Justice Lindblom told a packed court: ‘The Paris Agreement ought to have been taken into account by the Secretary of State in the preparation of the NPS and an explanation given as to how it was taken into account, but it was not.’
The judge said that, having seen the decision in advance, the Government did not oppose a declaration that the NPS was unlawful and had not sought permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Clarifying the meaning of the ruling, Lord Justice Lindblom added: ‘Our decision should be properly understood.
‘We have not decided, and could not decide, that there will be no third runway at Heathrow.
‘We have not found that a national policy statement supporting this project is necessarily incompatible with the United Kingdom’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change under the Paris Agreement, or with any other policy the Government may adopt or international obligation it may undertake.
‘The consequence of our decision is that the Government will now have the opportunity to reconsider the NPS in accordance with the clear statutory requirements that Parliament has imposed.’
Lawyers for the campaigners told the court at a hearing in October, when considering the proposals, that then-transport secretary Chris Grayling did not take enough account of environmental legislation or of climate change issues.
Mr Johnson opposed the expansion of the west London airport when he was London’s mayor and promised to ‘lie down … in front of those bulldozers’ to stop the runway being built.
He repeated his opposition as MP for Uxbridge in west London, which would be affected by the plans, and earlier this month said there was ‘no immediate prospect’ of construction beginning.
What are the alternatives to the expansion of Heathrow Airport?
Here are some of the alternatives to expanding Heathrow Airport which have been put forward:
Don’t do anything:
Some say Britain should stop fuelling endless airport growth.
But critics warn that not increasing UK airport capacity will harm trade.
One of the more eye-catching suggestions, Boris Johnson previously suggested a floating airport built in the Thames Estuary should be built.
This would mitigate issues of noise, air pollution and space would all be mitigated.
It would also provide the chance to close Heathrow entirely – solving the problem of noisy flight paths that have plagued West London and allowing new development of the area.
Expansion of Gatwick or Stansted:
Fewer people live near Gatwick and Stansted airports meaning that airport development could be less controversial.
Combine Gatwick and Stansted into a super hub airport
High speed rail links could join the two airports – providing a super hub that would eliminate the need for Heathrow to be London’s main hub airport.
Increase capacity at local airports:
Regional airports elsewhere in the UK have more spare to build on. These could be expanded eliminating the need for a large hub airport.
Mr Shapps said today: ‘The Court of Appeal ruled today that when designating the Airports National Policy Statement, which was backed by Parliament, the previous Government did not take account of the Paris Agreement, non-CO2 emissions and emissions post 2050.
‘We have always been clear that Heathrow expansion is a private sector project which must meet strict criteria on air quality, noise and climate change, as well as being privately financed, affordable, and delivered in the best interest of consumers. The Government has taken the decision not to appeal this judgment. The promoters of the scheme will be able to seek permission from the Supreme Court to appeal if they wish.
‘As part of its judgment, the Court has declared that the Airports National Policy Statement is of no legal effect unless and until the government carries out a review under the Planning Act 2008. The Court’s judgment is complex and requires careful consideration. We will set out our next steps in due course.’
A Heathrow spokeswoman said: ‘The Court of Appeal dismissed all appeals against the Government – including on noise and air quality – apart from one which is eminently fixable.
‘We will appeal to the Supreme Court on this one issue and are confident that we will be successful.
‘In the meantime, we are ready to work with the Government to fix the issue that the court has raised.
‘Heathrow has taken a lead in getting the UK aviation sector to commit to a plan to get to net zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Accord.
‘Expanding Heathrow, Britain’s biggest port and only hub, is essential to achieving the Prime Minister’s vision of global Britain.
‘We will get it done the right way, without jeopardising the planet’s future. Let’s get Heathrow done.’
The coalition of councils, environmental campaigners and Mr Khan appealed against a High Court ruling in May, which rejected four separate judicial reviews of the Government’s decision to approve the plans.
They argued that the Government’s NPS setting out its support for the project failed to properly deal with the impact on air quality, climate change, noise and congestion.
Support from Labour MPs helped push through the proposals to expand Europe’s busiest airport with an overwhelming majority of 296 in a Commons vote in June last year.
Mr Grayling said at the time that the new runway would set a ‘clear path to our future as a global nation in the post-Brexit world’.
Heathrow says it could open the third runway ‘between early 2028 and late 2029’. Its previous target date was 2026.
The airport said the delay was due to the Civil Aviation Authority, which refused to approve its bid to nearly quadruple the amount it spends before obtaining final planning permission.
The decision prompted joy from environmental campaigners today, but Heathrow has vowed to appeal
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell called today’s decision a ‘tremendous victory’ for eco campaigners
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who supported the legal action, welcomed the decision outside court today
Pictured are plans for what the third runway was due to look like. The future of the project is now unclear
Campaigners gathered outside court before the ruling, from 9am, and reacted with joy after hearing the judges’ decision, with one group popping a bottle of champagne.
Seventeen years of Heathrow wrangling
December 2003: Labour ministers publish plans for a third runway, 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.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who supported the legal action, said: ‘We won! Today we blocked the Tory government plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport. Today’s judgment is a major victory for all Londoners who are passionate about tackling the climate emergency and cleaning up our air.
Mr Khan said he was concerned about other issues such as noise pollution, adding: ‘I’m worried about future generations.’
‘I think what the Government has got to do is realise that the right choice to make is to abandon plans for a third runway,’ he said.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell joined protesters outside the Court of Appeal and hailed the decision as a ‘tremendous victory’.
He added: ‘There’s no way we can tackle climate change and allow Heathrow expansion to go ahead. I think that project is now dead.’
Environment minister Lord Zac Goldsmith, who lost his seat as MP for Richmond Park in the election last year before being made a peer, simply tweeted: ‘HUGE!!!’
The ruling was also greeted by Richmond Council in west London, which has always opposed the plans due to its impact on local residents.
Its leader, Gareth Roberts, said: ‘This judgment is nothing short of a victory. It leaves the Government’s airports policy in tatters. It surely must be the final nail in the coffin for Heathrow’s attempts to steamroll over local and national opposition to their disastrous third runway plans.’
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: ‘The third runway is already on its knees over costs, noise, air pollution, habitat loss and lack of access, and now Heathrow Ltd has yet another impossibly high hurdle to clear.
‘No amount of spin from Heathrow’s PR machine can obscure the carbon logic of a new runway. Their plans would pollute as much as a small country.
‘Boris Johnson should now put Heathrow out of its misery and cancel the third runway once and for all. No ifs, no buts, no lies, no U-turns.’
Aviation Environment Federation deputy director Cait Hewitt said: ‘This is a huge win for the climate, and leaves Heathrow’s third runway plans in tatters.
‘In presenting plans for a third runway to MPs, the Government failed, the court has found, to assess whether this was compatible with the Paris Agreement.’
Tanya Steele, chief executive of the WWF, said: ‘No plan for net zero emissions, either from the UK Government or from Heathrow itself, can be credible if it includes a third runway.’
And Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth, added: ‘This ruling is an absolutely ground-breaking result for climate justice.
‘We were fighting a project that would have had dire implications for present and future generations.’
Environmental campaigners hailing their victory outside the Court of Appeal today
However, there was dismay from the aviation lobby, which has supported the project as a means to boost capacity and cement Heathrow’s position as a world-leading hub airport.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said: ‘Today’s decision is extremely disappointing.
‘The Sir Howard Davies Airports Commission spent several years looking at airport capacity in the South East and was clear Heathrow is the only game in town, with other schemes being considered and ultimately rejected.
‘The economic prize is enormous if expansion is done right, with airlines ready to respond to the unlocking of new capacity by creating new routes and helping to connect the UK to new markets and destinations, and Heathrow to regions across the country.
‘UK aviation has committed to net zero carbon by 2050 and this factors in the emissions created by Heathrow expansion. It is not a question of being pro-aviation or pro-environment.’