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Heathrow NPS voted through, despite warning from climate advisers

On Monday night MPs voted in favour of the Government’s proposal for a third runway at Heathrow: the Airports National Policy Statement. 415 voted in favour of the NPS and 119 against.

Conservative MPs were subject to a whip on the motion and only 8 rebelled. Labour party MPs were given a free vote. The party policy, announced less than a week beforehand, was to oppose the motion on the basis that the plan did not pass the party’s 4 ‘tests’ (providing sufficient capacity, minimising local impacts, being compatible with climate change obligations and benefitting the whole of the country). The NPS was strongly supported by the Unite union, however, which represents more than 34,000 workers at the airport and is a major party donor. Heathrow Airport, Unite, and the Government itself all targeted MPs outside the South East in the weeks before the vote, promising growth and jobs.

In the end, more than half of all Labour MPs who voted ignored the party line and supported the NPS. The SNP cooled on their support at the last minute and all their MPs abstained, citing concerns about the lack of guarantees of connectivity to Scottish airports, and about whether the Government had deliberately scheduled the debate in advance of a new report from its climate change advisers.

The NPS was formally designated the next day, triggering the start of a six-week period during which any applications for judicial reviews of the decision must be lodged. At least four of the local authorities close to the airport, together with Greenpeace and the Mayor of London, have stated their intention to proceed with court action, which is likely to focus on the impact of the project on air quality law. Other legal actions have been threatened, including from local resident Neil Spurrier, and from a rival bidder for expansion, Heathrow Hub.

On the weekend before the vote the Sunday Times reported that the Government had ‘fixed’ its timing to ensure it came in advance of a report from the Committee on Climate Change “warning that surging aviation emissions would destroy Britain’s greenhouse gas reduction targets.” The CCC had written to the Government on 14th June expressing ‘surprise’ that Transport Minister Chris Grayling’s statement to parliament on the proposed NPS had made no mention of the Climate Change Act or of the Paris Agreement.

The letter warned that “the Committee has made a relatively generous provision for aviation emissions compared to other sectors” – namely that they should not exceed 37.5 Mt by 2050 – and that “Higher levels of aviation emissions in 2050 must not be planned for, since this would place an unreasonably large burden on other sectors”. Emissions from aviation are forecast by the Department for Transport to be 39.9 Mt by 2050 if Heathrow expands, or 40.8 Mt under a policy encouraging growth at other airports alongside Heathrow expansion (see table 3 of this recent DfT publication). No national policy, or planning conditions linked to Heathrow, are in place to address this overshoot.

The Committee’s Progress Report out today repeats this call, recommending – as in earlier Progress Reports – that the Government should “Publish a plan to limit UK aviation emissions to the level assumed when the fifth carbon budget was set (i.e. around 2005 levels in 2050, implying around a 60% potential increase in demand), supported by strong international policies.” At an event launching the report the CCC’s Chair, Lord Deben, said that while the report doesn’t talk directly about Heathrow, aviation would need to keep within the parameters set out by the committee “without so-called flexibility or by buying offsets somewhere”, and that “weasel words and special phrases, which seem to be working overtime in some departments, are not acceptable”.

As we’ve noted several times in recent months, it was ten years ago that a judge ruled that it would be “untenable in law and common sense” for Heathrow expansion to proceed in the absence of a plan demonstrating its compatibility with the Climate Change Act. It remains to be seen whether any of the legal challenges initiated in the coming weeks will include climate change in their grounds.