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Heathrow Expansion: A Potential Developmental Delusion

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About The Author

Naz Khan (Guest Contributor)

Naz Khan is a LL.M. candidate at Durham University, his main interests lie in civil issues and corporate law. It is his intention upon completion to pursue a career at the bar. Outside the law, he enjoys travelling and charitable work.

While I believe in a better Heathrow, I do not believe a bigger Heathrow is the right answer for London and I remain committed to opposing such a short-sighted decision.

Sadiq Khan

When Geoff Hoon, the former Transport Secretary, announced the UK government’s endorsement to construct a third runway at Heathrow Airport in January 2009, it was already being met with significant opposition from environmental groups and Labour MPs. The potentially irreversible climate crisis has failed to alarm those that promote an expanded Heathrow, the new runway of which is expected to emit the same amount of greenhouse gas as the entirety of Kenya. The threats posed by the expansion range from the fairly black and white environmental challenges to the more complex socio-economic inequality and social justice issues.

For years, Heathrow has been the epicentre of governmental power play: Prime Ministers have struggled to balance, on the one hand, keeping their business donors happy and, on the other, not annoying the general public to the point that they take to the streets in protest. This balance has crumbled and the protestors have emerged. The recent rigorous activism has led to five judicial reviews challenging the legality of the government’s controversial decision backing the new runway in the High Court.

This article will discuss the potential expansion of Heathrow Airport in line with the wider social, economic and environmental considerations. Additionally, the recent High Court’s decision to reject the claim will be examined with a focus on the importance of the Paris Agreement.

The Expansion

In a tug of war between government and environmentally-conscious portions of the public, the former, backed by businesses, has so far proven to be more powerful: after being debated for nearly 50 years, the new runway has recently gained significant momentum. Despite former Prime Minister David Cameron, when Leader of the Opposition, once strongly assuring the public that Heathrow would not be expanded – ‘no ifs, no buts’ – an independent Airports Commission, established in 2012, recommended the expansion. By pledging to endorse the recommendation of the Airports Commission, the Conservative Party were indirectly able to support the expansion of Heathrow without outrightly breaking Cameron’s promise.

The prime reason for the expansion has always been the enhancement of economic progress of the UK. The current runways of Heathrow are operating at 99% capacity, creating unavailability of tickets, delays and disruptions, and compelling the airlines to opt for other European hubs, such as Paris and Frankfurt. The competence of Heathrow is often damaged by these frequent delays, which can cause unwarranted emission of carbon dioxide by aeroplanes that circle London waiting for an available runway to land. The Department of Transport has stated that it expects the five London airports to hit full capacity by 2034. It has been estimated that the Heathrow expansion project will generate an economic growth of £187 billion across the country and create 180,000 new jobs.

However, while the promoters of the runway have advocated for the economic development and creation of jobs, they have excluded entirely (or, at least, have not sufficiently highlighted) the real climate costs associated with it. Inclusion of such crucial factors could significantly sway the perception of the section of the public that is currently in favour of the extension.

The expansion proposal has received considerable backlash from people of all walks of life. Environmental awareness campaigners were especially worried about the unavoidable increase in carbon dioxide emissions. That apprehension has since been validated by the UK Parliament’s unique declaration of an environment and climate emergency. This declaration, however, is paradoxical and irreconcilable with the government’s advocacy for the third runway.

It may be difficult to trust the government’s developmental promises when their calculation does not add up. Using the 2009 Impact Assessment by the Department of Transport, the New Economics Foundation has calculated that the total emissions costs from the impact to the climate will surge to between £8 billion to £20 billion over 70 years: enough to cancel out the economic benefit of the new runway. If this analysis is correct, the new runway simply leaves the world to deal with a gargantuan amount of additional CO2 gained in the process. If this analysis is even partially true, then the question remains: is the economic benefit earned worth the irreversible damage to the climate?

Despite the government’s consultation document stating that only 700 properties would have to be demolished to implement the plan, MP John McDonnell claimed in 2007 that the real figure could be up to 4000, evicting as many as 10,000 people. The additional 700 aeroplanes per day would breach the UK’s legal air pollution limits, exposing hundreds of thousands of inhabitants to unprecedentedly high levels of aircraft noise. It is interesting to note that most of the opposers of the new runway are members of the public that will physically bear the brunt of the consequences, including Mayor Sadiq Khan and five local London councils. The overwhelming majority of MPs seem undisturbed by the myriad of obvious problems that the mass people will have to endure.

High Court decision on the judicial review

On 1 May 2019, the High Court handed down two judgments in Spurrier & Ors v Secretary of State for Transport [2019] for the five claims for judicial review that challenged the Airports National Policy Statement, the official policy document in favour of the third runway. All five claims, containing 26 grounds of challenge in total, were dismissed, and 21 of those grounds were held to be not arguable. The court stressed that it was only concerned with whether the designation of the scheme was flawed by any legal errors: it was not concerned with the merits of increasing airport capacity.

As reported by the Aviation Environment Federation, it was ruled that the National Policy Statement had complied with the legal obligation to consider ‘the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change’. Merely noting the government’s assertion that the third runway was ‘capable’ of being built without ‘causing a breach of the UK’s climate change commitments’, the court stated that the probability or otherwise of the commitments being breached ‘did not appear to be a legal consideration’. The claimants contended that the government acted unlawfully by disregarding the Paris Agreement, which is committed to limiting the global temperature rise to ‘well below’ 2°C. Despite the Paris Agreement being ratified by the UK in November 2016, as Parliament has yet to incorporate it into UK law, the court ruled that it did not form part of the UK law. Similarly, the court ruled that the probable breach of the air quality was not an issue for the court, stating:

A policy which may not be deliverable is not, by virtue of that alone, irrational.

What now?

Environmental groups ‘Plan B’, ‘Friends of the Earth’ and ‘Heathrow Hub’ are considering an appeal against the ruling.

The desperate opposers of the runway initiated the judicial review claim as a last-ditch effort, failing to convince the State’s executive body. Despite not being the final nail in the coffin for the protestors, the review decisions are undoubtedly a powerful barrier at least. The judgment escaped through legal loopholes. Though the court has managed to avoid climate change considerations for the time being, it is hoped that there may come a time when the judiciary will become the gatekeepers of such cataclysmic policies to protect the environment.

Regarding ongoing protests, Extinction Rebellion had initially planned to carry out nonviolent direct action to ensure Heathrow Authorities closed the airport for the day on 18 June. A ten-day shutdown of Heathrow from July 1 was also planned but since June 16 it has postponed all action plans for June and July.

Wider socio-economic considerations

Leo Murray, author of Runway for the Few, told The Independent that, despite Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s insistence that the decision is being ‘taken in the national interest’:

most of the UK residents using this new runway will be based in London and the South East.

Consequently, Murray claimed that the UK airports are necessarily ‘giant wealth extractors’ that allow the affluent populace to take their money overseas. In light of the climate change costs that the government has purposely not considered, Murray says:

this project looks like an absolutely disastrous investment.

Professor David Banister, Emeritus Professor of Transport studies at Oxford University, has concluded that the low-income populace, who will be affected indirectly through the additional CO2 emission despite their limited use of the third runway, are undoubtedly the losers of the scheme. As the well-off population flies more frequently, the third runway will increase the difference between the CO2 produced by the richest 10% of the households (who produce thrice the amount) and the poorest 10%. This will make it more difficult to reach the CO2 reduction target when the air quality around Heathrow is already poor.

Apart from the growing concerns of inequality, there has also been controversial claims of unfair competition by tycoon Surinder Arora. He claimed that the owners of Heathrow are using ‘smoke and mirrors’ to avoid competition and that it was about time the ‘Heathrow monopoly’ was dissolved.


The trump card for the promoters of the third runway has principally been the economic development of the UK. However, that argument loses considerable weight when stacked against the true costs of the climate crisis, which has not been factored into the complicated equation. As mankind stands on the verge of what has been termed by the UN as the ‘sixth mass species extinction’, a balancing exercise must be undertaken carefully. It is submitted that this balance must lie in favour of taking every possible measure to combat the climate crisis.

In particular, countries like the UK are morally and historically responsible to do more than just reduce their carbon emissions and make carbon space available for the developing economies. With just 11 years to stop an irreversible climate crisis, decisions as significant as releasing an enormous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere attracts a public interest debate for the whole of the UK, not just affected residents.

The promises made in the expensive climate summits rarely bear fruit due to the developed countries escaping through convenient legal technicalities, such as the lack of implementation of the Paris Agreement into domestic law. The UK should take this momentous opportunity to set an example for all the developed countries by opting for more environment-friendly options to achieve their economic targets, rather than building a potentially destructive third runway.

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Tagged: Commercial Awareness, Environmental Law, Judicial Review

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