02 MAR 2020


Dozens of infrastructure schemes are now in doubt as a result of the court of appeal’s decision to rule that Heathrow’s third runway is illegal over climate change issues, says Julian Francis.

Governments, administrations and clients all across the country are slowly realising the full implications of the court of appeal’s ruling on the expansion of Heathrow.

It’s no exaggeration to say that dozens of schemes across the country have now been thrown into doubt. Everything from regional airport expansion, to road improvements and energy projects are on the line after judges ruled that there was a failure to review the impact of Heathrow's expansion on the environment.

The court ruled that there was a failure of government to properly consider the UN Paris Agreement on climate change, which aims to limit the rise in global temperatures, when approving the third runway was “legally fatal” to the overall decision. This has made the decision reviewable by the court.

As a result, the judgement not only affects Heathrow, but has the potential to affect a whole host of projects across the country on the grounds that they too are inconsistent with the legally binding climate change commitments. A quick survey of the UK infrastructure landscape shows us the scale of the impact this judgement might have.

  • HS2 – Despite having received the go ahead from the government just a few days ago, could the scheme once again be in doubt? Vocal protestors have long argued against the environmental credentials of the plan and the Oakervee review stated it is unlikely to be carbon netural in the short term. It is surely now only a matter of time until an application for judicial review is filed.
  • Regional airports – Following the ruling on Heathrow, Friends of the Earth stated they would be hoping to use the judgement to mount similar legal challenges to the plans to expand Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Leeds Bradford, Southampton and Bournemouth airports. Should they be successful it will scupper the entire government's aviation strategy.
  • Road improvements – It is not just airports that would find themselves on the wrong side of this judgment, as roads schemes such as the planned route between Oxford and Cambridge, the A303 Stonehenge tunnel and the Lower Thames Crossing are now all in doubt.
  • Drax – Approval was granted for the North Yorkshire power station to replace the old coal fired turbines with four new gas fired ones in October, over the objection of the Planning Inspectorate who wanted the scheme blocked because of its environmental impact. The legal challenge which is already underway now looks much more likely to succeed.

These are just a few of the existing schemes that are now vulnerable today. But the judgment also has implications on future projects. The government has trailed plans for a massive increase in infrastructure spending, particularly in the north of England, as part of an 'infrastructure revolution' All of this may now find itself open to legal challenges if the environmental impacts of infrastructure schemes haven’t been properly considered.

If this turns out to be the case, the government will find itself on the horns of a dilemma over delivery of its environmental strategy, or delivery of its economic rebalancing agenda, and achieving both may prove to be impossible.

What is clear is that clients now more than ever need access to the best advice they can find and that early design work and master planning will be key to meeting the nation’s climate change objectives. ACE is ready to help any client that needs assistance with their project by providing a forum where they can engage with the world’s finest consulting engineering companies to discuss the issues they face. While the delivery of projects has just got slightly more complicated as a result of the court’s decision on Heathrow, clients are not alone as we, as an industry, stand ready to help them achieve their goals.

Julian Francis is the director of policy and external affairs at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering. 


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