So, he won’t have to lie down in front of the bulldozers after all. The Court of Appeal has eased the prime minister off the Heathrow hook by finding that a third runway there would drive a 747 through the UK’s climate change commitments – “legally fatal” was the preferred phrase. Never mind that parliament had rubber-stamped the project in 2018, that was under Chris “Failing” Grayling, in another indication of why the soubriquet was so richly deserved.
The wringing of hands and rending of garments in the Heathrow executive was wondrous to behold. Heathrow Airport’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, might have thought he was cleared for take-off yesterday morning, as he delivered a well-rehearsed sales pitch to the BBC on why a failure to expand the airport would “give control to the French”. Passengers and exporters would be forced to use Charles de Gaulle instead, although he failed to explain how they would all get there.
Like so many of those suffering an unexpected defeat in a high court, the company immediately promised to appeal. Yet Mr Holland-Kaye might have considered the possibility of failure more carefully. His £14bn projected cost of the runway, with no material impact on pricing, always looked like a fantasy, and not just to Willie Walsh at British Airways.
The requirement to build the runway almost over the junction of the M4 and M25 is a heroic piece of civil engineering on its own, but the bigger mistake was to dismiss the imaginative proposal of the Heathrow Hub. This scheme would extend Heathrow’s northern runway westwards, allowing one plane to land while another was taking off, with a half-mile safety zone between them. The Airports Commission approved the concept.
Its proponents calculate that fewer houses need be destroyed, but more pertinently, in the early morning, incoming planes would use the western end of the runway. The higher flight path would significantly cut the noise over west London.
In theory, the extension would pay for itself even without more flights, thanks to fuel and time savings from planes which today must hang about waiting to take off or land. Perhaps because they hadn’t thought of it, the Heathrow management failed to give the scheme serious consideration. Since the government says it has no intention of appealing today’s ruling, the sensible way forward now is to consider this alternative, rather than trying to overturn the court’s decision on some technicality.
This ruling is an early sign of things to come, as the embrace of greenery which gives politicians of all parties an environmental sugar rush collides with commercial reality. There is little doubt that more airport capacity in south east England would be economically beneficial, but it would take the UK further away from meeting the climate commitments made by politicians who would be long out of office when they needed to be met.
Buoyed by the implication that commitments to counter the “climate emergency” trump those made to encourage growth and prosperity, the green lobby might now turn to the biggest and most marginal project of all. If they could stop HS2 in its tracks, it’s hard to see Boris Johnson being terribly upset.
The author writes a blog at neilcollinsxxx.wordpress.com