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Heathrow judge slams runway policy

26 March 2010

The government’s Heathrow policy is in tatters this morning after the High Court ruled that ministers’ decision to give a green light to the proposed third runway does not hold any weight. The judge dismissed the government’s claims to the contrary as “untenable in law and common sense”.

We’re celebrating a victory today, along with west London councils, residents and other green groups, after the High Court rejected the government’s case for a third runway at Heathrow airport. If the government wants to pursue its plans for Heathrow expansion it must now go back to square one and reconsider the entire case for the runway. We’re calling on them to scrap the proposal completely.

The implications of today’s ruling are profound, not just for Heathrow but for airport expansion plans across the UK. Lord Justice Carnwath ruled that the 2003 Air Transport White Paper – the foundation of expansion plans across the country – is obsolete because it is inconsistent with the Climate Change Act 2008.

The judge expressed real concern over the “hardship caused to the local community by uncertainty” over the third runway. The coalition which brought the successful legal challenge is now calling on the government to end the uncertainty and scrap the runway plans once and for all.

David Nussbaum, CEO of WWF-UK, says:
“We are delighted with today’s judgement. It deals a body blow to the third runway, but more than that it makes it clear that the government's whole policy of airport expansion must be reviewed in order to bring it into line with the Climate Change Act.

“Today’s landmark ruling has implications that could resonate far wider than the aviation sector. For a judge to tell the government that it cannot build huge pieces of carbon-intensive infrastructure without considering the long-term consequences is a resounding win in the fight to tackle climate change. It is also a further indication of the need for the UK to make a swift transition to a low-carbon economy.

“WWF would now urge the government to focus on green investment, encouraging alternative ways of connecting with people wherever possible, such as high-speed rail and videoconferencing, rather than relying on carbon-heavy methods such as flying.”

More details of the verdict

The judge ruled that:

  • If the government decides to push ahead with the runway project it must now review the climate change implications of Heathrow expansion, the economic case for a third runway, and the issue of how additional passengers would get to a bigger airport.
  • The government’s entire aviation policy must now be reviewed to take into account the implications of the 2008 Climate Change Act. The judge found that “the claimants’ submissions add up, in my view, to a powerful demonstration of the potential significance of developments in climate change policy since the 2003 Air Transport White Paper.”
  • On the economic case for Heathrow expansion he would be ”surprised” if the recent tripling of the estimated cost to society of emitting carbon did not have ”a significant effect”’ on the economic case for the runway. The judge also said that “it makes no sense to treat the economic case as settled in 2003.”
  • On the issue of surface access he said the claimants’ case – that there is no credible plan in place to transport millions of extra passengers to an expanded Heathrow – was “justified”. Significantly, he noted that the government was “unable to provide a convincing answer” in court when it was pressed about over-crowding on the Piccadilly underground line that would result from construction of a third runway.

The judge is now inviting the government to sign a legally binding undertaking that it will not base future aviation policy solely on its 2003 white paper. A further court hearing is expected to take place next month to examine the government’s response to the judge’s request. At the same hearing the coalition will seek costs and fully expects to recover those costs from the government.

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