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Heathrow’s Supreme Court win is a long-term opportunity for the government

The unanimous judgment will allow the firm behind Heathrow Airport to seek planning permission for a third runway

The unanimous judgment will allow the firm behind Heathrow Airport to seek planning permission for a third runway. Alistair Baldwin suggests that this is an opportunity for the government to rethink its transport strategy

The Supreme Court has overturned the Court of Appeal’s controversial ruling from February that the government’s Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS) in favour of Heathrow expansion was unlawful. It found that then secretary of state for transport Chris Grayling had adequately taken into account the Paris Agreement on climate change and had given weight to its obligations to the extent that they were covered by the existing Climate Change Act 2008. The court gave weight to the fact that he had followed the advice of the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC).

This does not mean that construction will definitely go ahead. It allows Heathrow to press on with its expansion plan and seek permission for a development consent order. This will be a lengthy process, including public examination by the Planning Inspectorate and ultimately a decision by the secretary of state for transport. Legal debates over Heathrow’s third runway will not be over anytime soon, as environmental groups have already expressed plans to contest every stage of this application. [1]

But while the court’s decision makes it harder for Boris Johnson to fudge his position on Heathrow, it also gives him the chance to reset his transport policy to align with his government’s commitments on net zero.

Heathrow’s Supreme Court success causes a political problem for the prime minister

While David Cameron’s government had accepted the case for an expansion of Heathrow in 2015, Johnson has been a long-term opponent of the scheme. He famously stated that he would “lie down in front of those bulldozers and stop the construction”. [2]

There are no signs of  the prime minister getting muddy any time soon, but Johnson’s government did not join the challenge against the Court of Appeal verdict. The Conservative party remains divided on the scheme. London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has been a vocal opponent of the third runway, celebrating with campaigners in February. [4] With London elections scheduled for May 2021, the party risk alienating voters, Tory MPs in the capital and their mayoral candidate by tying themselves to the Heathrow expansion.

The government’s transport and climate change objectives are in conflict

Beyond the short-term politics the government’s biggest headache will be on what this verdict means for its net zero climate change commitments. The government has set out to be an international climate leader and is hosting the COP26 conference next year in Glasgow. Directly supporting airport expansion in advance of this would send out all the wrong signals.

The UK is set to miss its 4th and 5th carbon budgets covering the period up to 2032 and transport has now overtaken energy supply to be the single largest emitting sector of the economy. [4] The Climate Change Committee thinks that aviation may be the largest emitting sector in 2050. [5]

However, while it presents long term challenges it is entirely possible that decisions on Heathrow will not need to be made in advance of the COP in late 2021. Covid has meant that the number of passengers using Heathrow in 2020 is down more than 70% [6], so there is currently plenty of spare capacity. In May, Heathrow’s chief executive said that third runway construction could be delayed by five years or more, not opening until 2030 at the earliest.

But the decision will still eventually need to be made. Carbon budgets after 2030 will be even tighter. The CCC assumes that expansions in airport capacity are balanced out by reductions elsewhere [7], but the government will be wary of reducing capacity at regional airports given its promise to ‘level up’ outside London.

The government must embed Net Zero in its transport strategy

The IfG has argued that tackling climate change needs to be central to the government’s purpose, and built in to all its decisions. That is not yet happening. The government is pursuing many policies that are at odds with its net zero ambitions, for example on Drax power station, where the Planning Inspectorate had recommended refusal on climate grounds [8] and in the Road Investment Strategy.

And transport policy is fast becoming a particular problem. The UK’s National Policy Statements on transport pre-date this government's statements on climate change, and the government looks like it might be forced into court to defend its road strategy in advance of the COP.

The temptation will be for the government to kick any Heathrow decisions into the long grass. It should instead take the opportunity to rethink its overall transport strategy to be compatible with net zero, and match the level of ambition it is showing on ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars across other modes of transport.

This piece was co-written with Kelly Shuttleworth.


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