Business alarm over block to Heathrow expansion

Why business leaders have reacted negatively to the illegal ruling verdict on the construction of a third runway at London's Heathrow Airport.

Heathrow airport ruling against runway
A judicial ruling that the construction of a London's Heathrow Airport would be illegal because it breached government commitments to cut carbon emissions, has been greeted with dismay by UK business leaders.The victory for environmentalists in the Court of Appeal has also opened up the likelihood of a similar challenge to the government's proposed £28 billion infrastructure investment in Britain's roads.The court ruled that it had been "legally fatal" for the £15 billion runway project at Europe's busiest airport to fail to take into account the government's commitment for the UK to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Will Heathrow be allowed to appeal the ruling?

Heathrow plans to appeal the ruling but the government - headed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has long opposed Heathrow expansion - has said it will not.Transport Minister Grant Shapps tells the House of Commons, “We take seriously our commitments on the environment, clean air and reducing carbon emissions. We will carefully consider this complex judgment and set out our next steps in due course."But business chiefs reacted with barely concealed anger. Miles Celic, CEO of the financial services lobby group TheCityUK, says that ongoing uncertainty over the UK’s airport capacity was "a blow to any serious vision of a Global Britain".He adds, "Building an integrated, world-class infrastructure network is vital to the UK’s international success and to boosting economic growth and jobs across the whole country. The UK seems stuck in the international infrastructure slow lane. We shouldn’t be surprised if it means that we get overtaken by our competitors."

Balancing global ambitions against net zero carbon emissions targets

Josh Hardie, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, accepts that the court ruling had raised "a fair question" over how to balance the net zero target against the UK’s global ambitions.But, he says, the decision risked holding back the investment in innovation needed to achieve a "robust decarbonisation plan" for aviation, as well harming the ambitions of many businesses eager to benefit from greater international connectivity.“It is vital that the government and Heathrow work closely together to remedy the fair concerns raised by the judgement and keep this project on track. Opportunities for future trade will not wait,” he says.

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And Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, says, “Business communities across the UK will be bitterly disappointed that plans for a world-leading hub airport are now at risk."

Risk of loss of connectivity and markets

Mr Marshall continues, “Without expansion, firms risk losing crucial regional connectivity and access to key markets across the world.“Heathrow and the wider aviation sector have set ambitious emissions targets, and like every industry, must continue to become greener. Britain's future depends on investment in a modern, integrated, low-carbon transport infrastructure that keeps trade flowing while minimising environmental impacts.“There has never been a more important time to demonstrate that Britain is open for business. The government must back Heathrow expansion unequivocally and take all necessary steps to finally move the project forward.”That, however, looks unlikely under the current administration, with many observers suggesting Mr Johnson and his ministers will happily see Heathrow's expansion plans wither away in the shadow of the court ruling.

A new challenge from environmentalists

The same, however, could not be said of the planned road-building programme, which the government is expected to formally unveil later in March. Yet environmentalists are already contemplating a challenge to the programme on the same basis that brought them victory over Heathrow.A pressure group, Transport Action Network, told the BBC it was considering legal action after its investigations suggested some road schemes would increase emissions, whilst other schemes had not collated the required data on potential carbon emissions. "The whole system desperately needs reviewing. The assessments were done in a pre-climate crisis era. They don't take into account the UK's commitment to net zero emissions," says the group's spokeswoman, Becca Lush.The government looks likely to fight any legal challenges to its roads programme by claiming the arrival of electric and hydrogen cars will enable it to meet its carbon-free commitments.

Read more news and views from David Sapsted.

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