Future infrastructure decisions could ‘face same scrutiny as Heathrow’

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Yesterday (27 February), the Court of Appeal ruled that the expansion of Heathrow Airport had failed to take climate obligations into account and was, therefore ‘unlawful’

The decision to veto Heathrow expansion plans came after Friends of the Earth pursued legal action. Campaigners have been contesting Heathrow’s third runway plans for years.

Judges ruled that if the third runway is to go ahead in the future, it must fit with the UK’s climate policy.

Every infrastructure decision could face legal challenges

Commenting on the judges’ decision, Julian Francis, director of external affairs at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), said: “From now on, every infrastructure spending decision in the UK could face a legal challenge if it doesn’t comply with the Climate Change Act, which mandates zero emissions by 2050. It’s not clear at present that this was an outcome that MPs intended when they signed up to the 2050 target, but in today’s court ruling, it’s what they’ve got.

“The judgement’s implications are clearly wider than just Heathrow as the Judges have stated that climate change must be kept at the heart of all planning decisions and that developers and public authorities can be held to account if their proposed schemes negatively impact UK climate change commitments.

“So I predict that the government will now be looking at ways to mitigate the implications of the judgement. However, in the short term, Heathrow is in limbo and as the Prime Minister has announced that he does not plan to appeal against the ruling, this will undoubtedly also call into question aviation expansion in the UK more generally – there is currently no viable technical fix to make planes zero-carbon.”

Temperature goal is binding

Heidi Copland is a partner and head of planning at city law firm DMH Stallard, said: “The new runway, which would bring roughly 700 extra planes to the airport every day, would see a large increase in carbon emissions. Initial cost indications for the project of £14bn are now claimed at more than double that.

“In its judgement the Court was careful to state that it was not making a decision that a third runway would always be incompatible with the UK’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change under the Paris Agreement, but as things currently stood, the ANPS was of no legal effect.

“This is the first decision of its kind to hold that the temperature goal set out in the Paris Agreement has binding effect on those who signed up to it. In 2015 then secretary of state for transport Chris Grayling stated that 2015 Paris agreement, which amongst other goals set a target of keeping global temperature rise below 2C, was “not relevant” to climate policy.

“The effect of this ruling is to hold otherwise, and may open the door to further challenges of national planning policies which have failed to take the Paris Agreement into consideration, not just in the UK but in all member countries.”

While Heathrow said it will challenge the decision, the government said it would not appeal.

Government’s decision not to appeal is disappointing

Mark Reynolds, group chief executive of Mace, said: “The government’s decision not to appeal the ruling against Heathrow’s expansion is disappointing. Without expansion at Heathrow, we are limiting our ambition and putting the sustainable future growth of the UK construction and infrastructure sector at risk.

“The third runway is a vital project that would create hundreds of thousands of much-needed jobs and 10,000 apprenticeships across the UK; as well as expanding the country’s passenger and exports capacity. If the UK wants to be able compete on the global stage, we need Heathrow’s expansion plans to go ahead.”

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