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Volume 50 Number 8, March 7, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Who Decides?

Court of Appeal Rules against Government over Heathrow Expansion

The 600-year old and recently-restored Great Barn at Harmondsworth, the largest standing medieval timber-framed structure in Britain, is reported to be under threat by the plans.

The courts have collided with the government over its decision to expand Heathrow Airport. The Court of Appeal ruled that the expansion decision was unlawful because it did not take climate commitments into account. The case was brought by environmental campaign groups, local residents, councils and the Mayor of London. The government has said that it will not appeal the decision at the Supreme Court. This course is being left to Heathrow itself to take up.

Though the Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of expansion last summer[1], contradictions and factional infighting are evident. Then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was himself a leading opponent of the plans, having promised in 2015 to lie down "in front of those bulldozers" to stop the construction of the third runway.

In his earlier role as Mayor of London, Johnson took the position that London itself needed more airport capacity, favouring the construction of an entirely new airport in the Thames Estuary. At that time, leading up to the 2010 general election, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties announced that they would block any expansion of Heathrow.

It is in this context that a spokesperson for Heathrow said: "Expanding Heathrow, Britain's biggest port and only hub, is essential to achieving the prime minister's vision of global Britain. We will get it done the right way, without jeopardising the planet's future."

The Court of Appeal said that the government had not properly considered the Paris climate agreement in backing the airport expansion. Friends of the Earth, who were amongst the groups that brought the case, called this "an absolutely ground-breaking result for climate justice". Their legal spokesperson, Will Rundle, said: "This judgment has exciting wider implications for keeping climate change at the heart of all planning decisions. It's time for developers and public authorities to be held to account when it comes to the climate impact of their damaging developments."

The ruling has consequences, and represents a tactical victory for the movement to safeguard the environment. However, care is required here. We no longer live in an era of checks and balances, separation of powers, civil society, and a functioning public authority other than the police powers. Arbitrariness, pragmatism and imposition are the new normal, and business is not going to reconcile itself to this new legal precedent[2]. The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) talked about their "bitter disappointment" in the decision, claiming Heathrow expansion would make Britain "a world-leading hub". The "connectivity" provided would give "access to markets across the world", in the words of BCC director general Adam Marshall.

Josh Hardie, deputy director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said that it is "clear that the government and aviation industry need to work closely to agree a robust decarbonisation plan".

The issue is who decides; who decides matters affecting the social and natural environment, and who decides the direction of the economy? Airport expansion is a complex issue and cannot be a matter of factional infighting. Nor can it be reduced to a simple matter of caring for the environment versus jobs, as if the needs of social and natural environment cannot be harmonised. Such a rendering serves only to foster division. Meanwhile, disinformation is propagated about "environmentally-friendly" monopolies, where the plunder of the environment by these monopolies is brushed under the carpet and sustainability and carbon neutrality are used as window-dressing.

Indeed, the very destructiveness of projects such as the expansion of Heathrow raises serious concerns. This is not only a matter of the destruction of nature, but of cultural heritage. The 600-year old and recently-restored Great Barn at Harmondsworth, the largest standing medieval timber-framed structure in Britain, is reported to be under threat by the plans.

The whole manner of this case - the parliamentary vote, the factional fighting, the court ruling following widespread opposition[3] and the acceptance of the outcome by the government, while business voices its rejection and Heathrow itself pledges to appeal - further underscores the dysfunctional role of parliament and the need for the people, not the monopolies, to decide.


[1] During the June 2018 Commons Vote, opponents of expansion included Plaid Cymru, The Liberal Democrats, The Green Party and 28 out of 46 Labour MPs, including: Rosena Allin-Khan, Diane Abbott, Dawn Butler, Lyn Brown, Karen Buck, Ruth Cadbury, Jeremy Corbyn, Marsha De Cordova, Jon Cruddas, John Cryer, Janet Daby, Emma Dent Coad, Clive Efford, Barry Gardiner, Helen Hayes, Kate Hoey, Rupa Huq, Sarah Jones, Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, Kate Osamor, Teresa Pearce, Matthew Pennycook, Steve Reed, Ellie Reeves, Andy Slaughter, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and Catherine West. 6 out of 19 London Conservative MPs also opposed the plans: Bob Blackman, Zac Goldsmith, Justine Greening, Greg Hands, Matthew Offord and Theresa Villiers. 5 of the 19 were absent (such as Boris Johnson) or abstained. (Wikipedia)

[2] In March 2010, campaigners "won a High Court battle" when Lord Justice Carnwath ruled that the government's policy support for a third runway would need to be looked at again, and called for a review "of all the relevant policy issues, including the impact of climate change policy". The Department for Transport vowed to "robustly defend" the third runway plan. Following the announcement, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown said it was the right decision, that it was "vital not just to our national economy, but enables millions of citizens to keep in touch with their friends and families" and that the judgement would not change its plans. Previously, Hounslow Council had also examined the possibility of legal action to prevent expansion, with the support of other London councils and the then Mayor, Boris Johnson. (Wikipedia)

[3] Heathrow Airport has been the target of repeated protest action since the plans were first announced. In August 2007, the Camp for Climate Action took place within a mile of Heathrow. The camp ran for a week and on its final day over 1000 people protested and 200 people blockaded British Airports Authority HQ. In February 2008, Greenpeace activists protested and managed to cross the tarmac and climb atop a British Airways Airbus A320, which had arrived from Manchester Airport and unfurled a "Climate Emergency - No Third Runway" banner over the aircraft's tail fin. In March 2008, a protester was arrested after scaling with a perimeter fence onto runway 27R, and ran across the grounds, resulting in arrest. In January 2009, Greenpeace and partners (including actress Emma Thompson and impressionist Alistair McGowan) bought a piece of land on the site of the proposed third runway called Airplot. Their aim is to maximise the opportunities to put legal obstacles in the way of expansion. In March 2009, Leila Deen of the direct action group Plane Stupid threw green custard over Business Secretary Lord Mandelson at a low carbon summit hosted by Gordon Brown, in protest at the frequent meetings between Roland Rudd, who represents airport operator BAA, and Mandelson and other ministers in the run-up to Labour's decision to go ahead with plans for a third runway at Heathrow. In July 2015, thirteen activists belonging Plane Stupid managed to break through the perimeter fence and get onto the northern runway. They chained themselves together in protest, disrupting hundreds of flights and were arrested. (Wikipedia)


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