Seven months on from the departure of former Transport Secretary and walking disaster Chris Grayling, his decisions whilst in power at the Department for Transport once again smack of the poisoned chalice he so often spilt now that plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport have been ruled illegal by the Court of Appeal over environmental concerns.
Granted that discussions on expanding the UK's air capacity had been going on long before Grayling even joined the department, with the most meaningful impact being in September 2012 when the Airport Commission was set up (just as he was getting his hands on the Justice Secretary role) it was however during his tenure that the decision to expand the capacity at Heathrow was made. The Judges ultimately proclaimed that Grayling did not sufficiently take into account the UK's climate change pledge under the Paris Agreement when siding with Heathrow.
This of course is not the first environmental faux pas the government have managed to make. When Brexit negotiations were grinding along a decision to build a vast lorry park in Kent was pushed through to alleviate any potential congestion problems. That one fell at the same ecological fence when it ‘forgot’ to make any sort of environmental assessment in an area known with good cause as ‘the garden of England’.
While concerns about the environmental impact are more than legitimate, particularly given the country’s own official position on reducing environmental pollution, the question surrounding the UK's air capacity remains. Heathrow Airport remains defiant following the judgment, saying that judicial reviews are a common feature of major infrastructure projects, adding that this announcement explicitly does not prevent Heathrow expansion from moving ahead.
The judgment does state that this ruling does not mean Heathrow expansion should not be delivered, or that the Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS) is not compatible with the UK’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions. The judges now require the Government to undertake more work to ensure a third runway would definitely be compatible with a strategy to mitigate climate change under the Paris Agreement.
Heathrow says that this is eminently achievable, a statement denied by both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, both of which say plans to include 'carbon capture' as a mainstay of enviromental policy are little more than pie in the sky. Since the original court hearing, which unanimously backed the government’s process with regard to the Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS), the UK aviation industry has produced a comprehensive and detailed plan which sets out the road to Carbon Net Zero by 2050 and Heathrow published its own pathway to Net Zero earlier this week. The airport says that this is a challenge that needs to be addressed for any UK airport to expand.
A Heathrow spokesperson 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.”
Much is being made of the ‘biggest port’ comment with other sources quoting it as ‘fourth biggest port’ possibly losing sight of the fact that ocean transport carries 90% of all freight whilst producing around 3% of emissions compared to airfreight, considered 40 times as polluting.
The ruling by the Court of Appeal in London has come to disappoint organisations such as the British International Freight Association (BIFA) the trade association that represents UK freight forwarding and logistics businesses and which has welcomed plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport, and criticised the years of argument and delay. Robert Keen, BIFA Director General made the industry viewpoint clear, saying: “The Lord Justices have made it clear that their judgment didn’t mean that there could never be a third runway at Heathrow, but that the government now has the opportunity to reconsider, in accordance with the clear statutory requirements that parliament has imposed.
“The owners of Heathrow Airport have said that whilst they will appeal to the Supreme Court on the one issue that was not dismissed, the Airports National Policy Statement, which approved the project in its current form, it is ready to work with the Government to fix the issue that the court has raised.
“The government has announced it will not appeal today’s judgement. On behalf of BIFA member companies, which are keen for the greater number of flights and accompanying airfreight capacity that would result from a new runway, BIFA urges the government to revise the Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS) and work with Heathrow to solve the legal issues.
“In 2018, when the government gave approval for the 3rd runway, I said it would be nice to think that decision is a further nail in the coffin of procrastination over the expansion of UK aviation capacity, and another important step towards bringing fifty years of indecision and delay on expanding Heathrow to a welcome close.
“However, I also expressed a sense of foreboding that the likelihood of further legal challenges to an extra runway still left me questioning whether the spades will ever hit the ground. That sense of foreboding remains. A feeling that I suspect is shared by many of BIFA’s 1,500 member companies, which are dismayed over the ongoing delay on such a huge issue.”
The BIFA boss was not alone with Alex Veitch, Head of Multimodal Policy at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), commented: “This decision is a blow to the economy. However, planning consent for a third runway at Heathrow Airport has always been contingent upon meeting climate obligations, and with the rapid improvements in aviation fuel and engine technology we are confident that Heathrow will be able to demonstrate that this challenge can be met.
"Now more than ever, the UK needs world-class global gateways. Heathrow Airport accounts for 40% of the UK’s non-EU trade by value but has been operating at peak capacity for freight for many years; expansion is long overdue.”