Heathrow Airport remained upbeat on plans to build a third runway despite the London Court of Appeal’s ruling on Thursday that the UK government's decision to give the £14 billion project the go-ahead was unlawful on environmental grounds. In their ruling, the judges considered that the former government failed to take account of its commitment to the 2016 Paris agreement on climate change when setting out its support for Heathrow’s expansion in its national policy statement on aviation. Environmental groups, London mayor Sadiq Khan, and five councils in London affected by the expansion brought legal action over the government's approval of the proposed third runway on grounds of climate, noise, air pollution, and economic growth.
A Heathrow Airport spokesperson said the Court of Appeal dismissed all appeals against the government apart from one—namely climate change, which he described as “eminently fixable.” He added that the company will appeal to the Supreme Court on that one issue. “In the meantime, we are ready to work with the government to fix the issue that the court has raised,” he explained.
The UK government will not appeal the court's decision, according to transport secretary Grant Shapps. “Airport expansion is core to boosting global connectivity," he tweeted. “We also take seriously our commitment to the environment. This government won't appeal today's judgment given our manifesto makes clear any Heathrow expansion will be industry-led.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson has long opposed the third runway and pledged during his term as mayor of London that he would “lie down in front of the bulldozers” to stop construction.
Conversely, Heathrow calls the third runway “essential” to achieving the prime minister’s vision of Global Britain post-Brexit. Earlier in February, Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye warned that the gateway will fall behind Paris as Europe’s busiest hub airport. According to data from ACI Europe, Charles de Gaulle—which boasts four runways—saw passenger traffic expand 5.5 percent in 2019, to 76.2 million, while Heathrow added only 1 percent more passengers last year, to 80.8 million. “If we are to be a truly global Britain, we need to be better connected to global markets than our rivals in Europe. It would be an economic disaster for the country to fall behind, just as we leave the EU,” asserted Holland-Kaye. “Heathrow’s new runway will make the UK a winner, connecting all of Britain to global growth and that’s why we need to get on with delivering it.”
The proposed northwest runway would raise Heathrow’s capacity to 740,000 flight movements a year. The airport had hoped to start work on the new runway next year with completion projected for 2028 or 2029.
While Thursday’s ruling will lead to yet another delay of the much-debated project, on which planners have worked since 2003, it did not find the project unlawful as such. “Our decision should be properly understood. We have not decided, and could not decide, that there will be no third runway at Heathrow,” the judges noted. A third runway could still go ahead on the condition that the government adapts its airport policy statement in line with the UK’s commitments to reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change under the Paris Agreement.