Plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport face an uncertain future after the Court of Appeal said the government’s decision to allow it was unlawful.
The verdict does not put an end to the plans, however. The judges said a third runway may be able to go ahead in the future, as long as it fits with the UK’s climate commitments.
Heathrow authorities want to build a third runway to increase the number of flights to and from the London airport.
The idea to expand Heathrow has been talked about for many years, and while many businesses supported it, the plan had also attracted a lot of opposition from environmentalists and local residents.
Heathrow Airport said it would challenge the court’s decision – but the government has not lodged an appeal.
What happens next?
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government would take time to decide its next move.
“The court’s judgement is complex and requires careful consideration. We will set out our next steps in due course,” he said.
“The government has taken the decision not to appeal this judgement. The promoters of the scheme will be able to seek permission from the Supreme Court to appeal if they wish.”
Not surprisingly, Heathrow bosses want to keep alive the plans for the redevelopment and believe that they can.
A spokesman said they were confident an appeal to the Supreme Court “will be successful” and added they would work with the government in overcoming obstacles to the plans.
However, local politicians were delighted with the court’s verdict and said they hoped it would prove to be the end for the scheme.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the government had to “realise that the right choice to make is to abandon plans for a third runway”.
Richmond Council leader Gareth Roberts said the ruling was “nothing short of a victory”, while Hillingdon Council leader Ray Puddifoot said he hoped the government would announce that Heathrow expansion was “off the agenda once and for all”.
Meanwhile, business leaders reacted with dismay to the news.
Josh Hardie, deputy director general of industry lobby group the CBI, said all major projects must be consistent with net-zero carbon emissions.
He added: “But this decision risks holding back the very investment in innovation needed to achieve that, and the ambitions of many businesses eager to benefit from greater international connectivity.”
What is the Heathrow expansion plan?
Heathrow is already the UK’s busiest airport, serving about 80 million passengers per year. The airport currently has four terminals and two runways.
If the plan had been given the green light on Thursday, construction of a new runway was expected to be completed between 2028 and 2029.
Last summer, Heathrow Airport had set out an earlier completion date of 2026 under its “master plan”. However, the airport was forced to revise its timetable after the Civil Aviation Authority – the aviation regulator – warned that the “aggressive schedule” could leave passengers shouldering the cost.
Building the new runway would involve diverting rivers, moving roads and rerouting the M25 through a tunnel under the new runway.
But that would not be the end of the project. Work was expected to continue until 2050, with extensive upgrades to the existing terminals two and five as well as plans for new car parks.
Heathrow Airport had said the project would be funded privately.
What were the arguments for a third runway?
More people are travelling by plane than ever and that left the government looking for ways to expand airport capacity.
The CBI said a third runway would “set the UK on course for a bright trading future”.
The expansion would benefit passengers, boost the wider economy by up to £61bn and create up to 77,000 local jobs by 2030, according to the Department for Transport.
More than 40% of the UK’s exports to non-EU countries now go through Heathrow, according to its chief executive John Holland-Kaye. He said a third runway was vital in order to strengthen international trade links.
“If we don’t expand our only hub airport, then we’re going to be flying through Paris to get to global markets.”
Heathrow Airport had also said it would introduce legally binding environmental targets – including on noise, air quality and carbon emissions.
What are the arguments against?
Local and environmental groups have dismissed Heathrow Airport’s assurances and say a new runway would mean unacceptable levels of noise and pollution, as well as adding to the UK’s carbon emissions from the increased number of flights.
The proposal also “makes a mockery” of the government’s 2050 carbon neutral strategy, according to Green MP Caroline Lucas.
Rupa Huq – the Labour MP for neighbouring Ealing Central and Acton – had labelled the plan “completely nuts” and said: “Heathrow is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in Europe.”
Campaign groups have also voiced opposition.
“What hits you is the scale of these proposals,” said John Stewart, who chairs the Hacan group.
“The impact on local people could be severe for many years to come. Disruption from construction, the demolition of homes, the reality of more than 700 extra planes a day.”
In all, 761 homes are expected to go, including the entire village of Longford.
Heathrow had said it would pay the full market value plus 25% for properties in its compulsory purchase zone, as well as for some houses in the surrounding areas.
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What is the plan’s history?
The third runway plans have been an issue for all recent governments.
The issue had put Prime Minister Boris Johnson in an awkward position – especially as his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat is next to Heathrow.
In 2015, he said: “I will lie down with you in front of those bulldozers and stop the construction of that third runway.”
However, when MPs voted in favour of the third runway in 2018, Mr Johnson – who was foreign secretary at the time – missed the vote as he was travelling to Afghanistan.
The Labour government first gave the third runway the green light in 2009, with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown saying it was needed for economic reasons.
But the plan was later scrapped by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government in 2010. David Cameron, who became prime minister after Mr Brown, had previously ruled out a Heathrow expansion “no ifs, no buts”.
A few years later an Airports Commission was set up to look at how to deal with London’s airport capacity problems. In 2015, it recommended Heathrow as the preferred site for a new runway.
A year after the commission’s report was published, the government approved the plan under Theresa May’s leadership.
However, the decision caused some disquiet within the Conservative Party. Zac Goldsmith – the MP for Richmond Park – resigned his seat in protest.
The Conservatives’ 2019 election manifesto says that while the third runway is a private project, Heathrow must demonstrate it can meet its air quality and noise obligations.