Still up in the air

Plans for a controversial third runway at Heathrow have been ruled illegal, fuelling debate on how the UK can tackle its airport capacity challenge. Mark Broadbent considers the latest on the decades-long airport saga.

An artist’s impression of what a newly expanded Heathrow could look like.
All photos Heathrow Ltd

A landmark verdict by the Court of Appeal February 27 has ruled that the UK government’s decision to expand London Heathrow Airport with a third runway is unlawful because it does not meet the nation’s climate change commitments.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government would review its next move, but will not appeal the judgement. However, Heathrow Ltd has vowed to contest the ruling, renewing uncertainty over just how and where the growing airspace capacity battle can be settled.

Back in 2016, the UK government accepted a recommendation by the Airports Commission to build a third runway at Heathrow. Two years later, MPs voted overwhelmingly – by 415 votes to 119 – in favour of the proposal.

With expansion proving so contentious, a raft of public consultations has taken place, and environmental groups, councils and the current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, brought the appeal court challenge. The ruling in the activists’ favour has provided yet another twist to the long-running saga and set the stage for continuing debate.

Expansion options

The latest Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) data shows 80.8m travellers passed through Heathrow in 2019, an annual record and the ninth consecutive year that passenger numbers have increased. This compares to 65m passengers ten years ago, which was up from 61m a decade before that and 42m in 1990.

The Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS), the UK government’s official line on Heathrow expansion adopted in June 2018, says: “Heathrow is operating at capacity today, Gatwick is operating at capacity at peak times, and the whole London airports system is forecast to be full by the mid-2030s.

“With very limited capability at London’s major airports, London is beginning to find that new routes to important long-haul destinations are being set up elsewhere in Europe. This is having an adverse impact on the UK economy and affecting the country’s global competitiveness."

Last year, a record of more than 80m passengers used Heathrow.

The Airports Commission was set up by the coalition government in 2012 to evaluate how to provide additional capacity. As the subsequent ANPS stated, the commission – reporting three years later – concluded a new northwest runway at Heathrow would offer the greatest strategic and economic benefits.

The alternatives, either extending Heathrow’s existing northern runway (a proposal from a private company, Heathrow Hub Ltd), or building a second runway at Gatwick (proposed by that airport’s owners, Gatwick Airport Ltd), were dismissed. An earlier interim report by the Commission had previously concluded a further option, a new Thames Estuary hub (an idea championed a decade ago by the then London Mayor, now the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson), was unviable.

The ANPS says: “Expansion at Gatwick would not enhance, and would consequently threaten, the UK’s global aviation hub status. Gatwick would largely remain a point to point airport, attracting very few transfer passengers. Heathrow would continue to be constrained, outcompeted by competitor hubs which lure away transfer passengers, further weakening the range and frequency of viable routes.”

The report adds: “At the UK level, there would be significantly fewer long-haul flights [from Gatwick], with long-haul destinations served less frequently. Expansion at Heathrow is the better option to ensure the number of services on existing routes increases and allows airlines to offer more frequent new routes to vital emerging markets.”

The report also cites Heathrow’s “substantial freight handling operation” and said it deals with around 20 times more freight by tonnage than Gatwick Airport, saying: “Expansion at Heathrow will further strengthen the connections of firms from across the UK to international markets.”

Further consultations

The ANPS states that Heathrow’s proposed third runway has to be 11,482ft (3,500m) long and should enable “at least 260,000 additional air transport movements per annum”.

As the report notes, the runway is regarded as a “nationally significant infrastructure project” under the Planning Act 2008, so further work to examine the final location of the scheme is required, as well as additional studies on air quality, noise, carbon emissions and “mitigating impacts on affected local communities”.

Terminal 5 has been open since 2008.

In June 2019 the airport’s owners, Heathrow Ltd, unveiled a long-term master plan for the airport involving the new runway, other infrastructure such as terminals and proposals for diverting rivers and road access, including rerouting the M25 through a tunnel under the new runway.

The ANPS document states: “For a scheme to be compliant with the ANPS, the Secretary of State would expect to see these elements comprised in its design, and their implementation and delivery secured.”

This led to further public consultations to enable local communities to review the proposals and offer feedback. In December of that year, the CAA said it would limit early spending on the third runway project.

Heathrow Ltd said: “Capping spending has prolonged the construction period of a new third runway and means Heathrow will need to undertake refreshed modelling of key aspects of the plan – including public transport to and from the airport – to evidence that ANPS targets can be met.”

Speaking in Parliament in February 2020, the then Transport Minister Paul Maynard said: “Expansion is a private sector project, therefore the cost of the scheme is a matter for Heathrow, who are regulated by the CAA. It is for Heathrow to demonstrate that the project can be financed and built and that the business case is realistic.”

A consultation was set for April to June 2020. Heathrow’s owners said responses would subsequently be fed into the final application for a Development Consent Order (DCO) required for the project, which was expected to be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate by the end of this year.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps, would then review the scheme and make the final ‘go or no-go’ decision. February’s court ruling is likely to further delay that announcement.

Arguments for expansion

Coping with increased demand for air travel and strategic economic benefits are key to the case for a new runway.

The ANPS states that London’s five primary airports - Heathrow, Gatwick, City, Stansted and Luton - “will all be full by the mid-2030s if we do not take action now” and that four of the five could even be “full by the mid-2020s”.

The ANPS says demand at these airports “is expected to outstrip capacity by at least 34%” by 2050, even using a low-demand forecast. It notes: “There is relatively little scope to redistribute demand away from the region to less-heavily utilised capacity elsewhere in the country.”

It adds that other European hubs such as Paris CDG, Frankfurt and Amsterdam “have spare capacity and are able to attract new flights to growth markets in China and South America” and noted the competition from the big Gulf hubs.

The ANPS warns: “The consequences of not increasing airport capacity in the southeast of England – the ‘do nothing’ or ‘do the minimum’ scenarios – are detrimental to the UK economy and the country’s hub status.

“Capacity constraints lead to trade-offs in destinations, and while there is scope to respond to changing demand patterns, this necessarily comes at the expense of other connections. Domestic connectivity into the largest London airports will also decline… The Government believes that not increasing capacity will impose costs on passengers and on the wider economy.”

The ANPS says aviation contributes around £20bn to the economy every year and directly supports approximately 230,000 jobs, while also “enabling activity in other important sectors like business services, financial services and the creative industries”.

The CBI’s infrastructure and energy director Tom Thackray said last year: “We can’t wait any longer for the growth in trade we need to see if the UK is to remain a globally competitive economy.

“With the new global links and routes it will bring and the opportunity to unlock jobs right across the UK, a third runway at Heathrow operational by the 2030s will set the UK on course for a bright trading future.”

A new runway would add at least 260,000 air transport movements per year.

Court of Appeal decision

Business groups reacted furiously to the verdict from the appeal court, with British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall protesting that firms “risk losing crucial connectivity and access to key markets”.

However, the Court of Appeal concluded: “The designation of the ANPS was unlawful by reason of a failure to take into account the government’s commitment to the provisions of the Paris Agreement on climate change.”

Its ruling says: “The Paris Agreement ought to have been taken into account by the Secretary of State in the preparation of the ANPS and an explanation given as to how it was taken into account, but it was not. That, in our view, is legally fatal to the ANPS in its present form.”

However, vocal pressure groups, which work with and through the main No 3rd Runway Coalition, along with environmental campaigners welcomed the Court of Appeal decision.

Friends of the Earth said the ruling was "an absolutely ground-breaking result for climate justice" and the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, tweeted to say that the judgement is “a major victory for all Londoners who are passionate about tackling the climate emergency and cleaning up our air”.

Despite parliament overwhelmingly voting for development, several local MPs in constituencies near Heathrow have repeatedly raised concerns over health impacts and question how more airport capacity is compatible with legally binding climate change targets the government signed up to in the 2015 Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

For example, during a February 5, 2020 debate on transport, Twickenham MP Munira Wilson spoke of how a third runway would be “bad for [the] climate, bad for our health and well-being”. Similarly, Putney MP Fleur Anderson said that increased noise and air pollution would be “a disaster” for her constituents and others across southwest London.

Both of these MPs obviously welcomed the Court of Appeal’s verdict, with Anderson hailing what she claimed was a “historic ruling” and Wilson using a single word: “Victory”.

Heathrow’s owners say it will cost £15.6bn to develop the airport.

"I see no bulldozers"

So what happens next? Heathrow Ltd said it would appeal the decision at the UK Supreme Court, saying it is “confident that we will be successful” and that, “expanding Heathrow… is essential to achieving the Prime Minister’s vision of global Britain”. Before the Court of Appeal decision, operators Heathrow Ltd said the runway could open in 2028 or 2029 should the government sign off its development.

Importantly, the Court of Appeal judgement stated it had “not decided, and could not decide, that there will be no third runway at Heathrow”. Its decision only means the government “will now have the opportunity to reconsider the ANPS”.

A third Heathrow runway could give the Conservative government, elected with a substantial parliamentary majority at the December 2019 general election, another flagship national infrastructure project to bolster its narrative of economic “levelling up”. This would follow the recent approval of another equally controversial initiative, the HS2 high-speed railway from London to northern England. However, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has long been a vocal critic of Heathrow expansion.

More than a decade ago, while Johnson was London mayor, he backed the idea of building the Thames Estuary hub airport instead of enlarging Heathrow. Later, under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government of 2010-2015, he claimed that he would “lie down in front of those bulldozers” to stop any construction work proceeding at Heathrow.

Johnson said in the House of Commons on February 11, 2020 when speaking about the HS2 interchange: “Passengers arriving at Birmingham Airport will be able to get to central London by train in 38 minutes, which compares favourably with the time it takes to get from Heathrow by taxi, a point I just draw to the attention of the House.”

When asked by Munira Wilson whether he would keep his promise about the bulldozers and scrap the third runway proposal for Heathrow, the PM said: “I see no bulldozers at present, nor any immediate prospect of them arriving.”

A ‘no’ decision to more infrastructure in the southeast could conceivably also play well in UK regions – areas where the Conservatives gained ground at the election and where there are complaints of central government underfunding.

When asked directly about the runway during Prime Minister’s Questions on February 12, 2020, Johnson again said he does not support the runway, but would “wait to see the outcome of the various legal processes that are currently under way to see if the promoters of the third runway can satisfy their legal obligations under air quality and noise pollution”.

The Court of Appeal’s decision only adds to the sense that, as The Guardian put it: “It now looks very easy for a PM with a large majority to kill the third runway.”