£14bn project was blocked by Court of Appeal judges in February

Plans for a third runway at Heathrow were given a reprieve today as the UK’s highest court overturned a decision against the expansion.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the government’s approval of the scheme, which was outlined in the Airports National Policy Statement, was lawful. This means the £14bn project can proceed - if the airport still wishes to expand given the drop-off in demand due to the covid-19 pandemic.

The panel of five justices overruled the decision made by the Court of Appeal in February. They decided that former transport secretary Chris Grayling had acted within the law when he approved the scheme by relying on domestic legislation – rather than the Paris climate agreement.


Source: Heathrow Airport

The third runway was blocked by a Court of Appeal ruling in February

The plans were initially approved by parliament in 2018 before being blocked by judges this year.

In that landmark ruling, lawyers for environmental campaign groups Plan B and Friends of the Earth persuaded the Court of Appeal that Grayling had failed to take into account the UK’s commitments as a signatory of the Paris agreement.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the national policy statement supporting the scheme was “necessarily incompatible” with the UK’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions as part of the Paris agreement.

It was the first court ruling in the world to be based on the Paris agreement and, despite fears that it might trigger challenges to other major infrastructure projects, the government did not challenge the decision.

Heathrow’s lawyers argued at the Supreme Court that Grayling was not obliged to consider the agreement when drafting the Heathrow policy. Lord Anderson QC told the court that it could not constitute domestic policy as it was a “global aim”.

He added: “The Paris agreement sets a global long-term temperature goal, not national targets, and a global aim is incapable of being government policy for the purposes of assessing carbon effects of an individual development scheme.”

While the Supreme Court’s decision will be welcomed by those behind the project and the industry there is some doubt about whether the project will proceed given the reduced demand across the aviation sector. Plans to expand and enhance Stansted and Birmingham airports have been put on hold this year because of the pandemic.

While there may have been a drop-off in demand in the aviation sector, the construction industry will be keen for the expansion to go ahead given the secure pipeline of work it will provide.

Grimshaw, the architect behind the scheme, began consulting with staff over possible redundancies after the Court of Appeal decision. The practice said more than 20 staff were likely to lose their jobs, although some of these people have since been redeployed.

In a statement Grimshaw said: “We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision, and hope that it helps to give confidence to UK airports to build towards a more sustainable futurehas been approached for comment but management are currently understood to be locked in talks about the development.” 

The Heathrow expansion’s long journey to being ruled illegal

December 2003: Tony Blair’s Labour government publishes plans for a third runway at Heathrow, arguing that expansion is needed to keep pace with other European airports.

January 2009: The plans are given the green light by Gordon Brown, despite opposition from residents, environmental activists and many of his own MPs.

October 2009: Opposition leader David Cameron states that he will block Heathrow expansion.

May 2010: The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, led by Cameron, rules out plans for a third runway.

September 2012: The Airports Commission is set up to look at potential airport expansions and revives the idea of a third runway at Heathrow.

July 2015: The commission recommends Heathrow should get a new runway.

July 2017: Heathrow scales back proposals for a new terminal to reduce project costs.

June 2018: Revised plans with a £14bn price tag are approved by Cabinet, on the condition that it will be privately funded.

June 25, 2018: Trade minister Greg Hands resigns from government to vote against the National Policy Statement (NPS) - effectively outline planning permission for the third runway. Boris Johnson, who previously vowed to ‘lie down in front of bulldozers’ to stop the expansion, is abroad in Afghanistan when MPs vote in favour by a majority of 296.

December 2019: Now prime minister, Boris Johnson does not change official policy on Heathrow but says he will ‘find a way’ of honouring his bulldozer pledge.

February 2020: The Court of Appeal rules that the NPS was unlawful as the government had not considered its obligations under the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The Government does not appeal the case, but Heathrow states its intention to take it to the Supreme Court.

April 2020: The airport says all expansion plans will be pushed back by at least two years due to the disruption caused by covid-19.

May 2020: Heathrow admits it could be 10 to 15 years before the airport needs a third runway due to the crisis.