Airports & Courts

The Government’s long awaited decision on airport expansion in the south east, following its interim 10 December 2015 statement, finally seems imminent. A Guardian 9 October 2016 story speculates that the decision will be taken at a cabinet meeting on 17 October (presumably meaning an announcement the following day) and that Heathrow will be favoured, in which case, according to an Independent story the same day, Gatwick will pursue expansion in any event.
New Civil Engineer on the hand speculates that both Heathrow and Gatwick will get the go ahead:
“It is believed that the announcement will be made on 18 October, with government giving the green light to a third runway at Heathrow immediately and also allowing Gatwick to expand with a second runway within the next five years.

Gatwick’s 30-year agreement with local authorities not to expand is due to expire in 2019.

It is also understood that government will urge Birmingham airport to advance its proposals for an additional runway.”

Whatever the timing and content of the announcement, two things are sure:

1. The process of turning the announcement into reality will be a slow and complex process. The Government confirmed in its 10 December 2015 statement that the DCO rather than Hybrid Bill process would be used. The first step will be an Airports national policy statement to form the policy basis for a DCO application or applications to be made in due course. Once the announcement is made I will cover in a future blog post the potential complexities, which would be acute were both Heathrow and Gatwick to proceed, in terms of the coordination required between competing promoters, but equally difficult if only one airport is favoured leaving the other to object, challenge and seek to promote its own proposals independently. 

2. There will inevitably be litigation at each administrative step of the process, particularly ahead of the formal submission of any DCO application (because any challenges to that process, once it is underway, can only be brought once it has concluded). The litigation will be entangled with (1) ongoing issues as to the Government’s non-compliance with the EU Air Quality Directive (2) a slowly changing basis over coming years as to the extent to which UK environmental laws are underpinned by EU legislation (3) continuing efforts by the Government to speed up the judicial review process and discourage unmeritorious claims. 

Aside from the potential for the airport operators themselves to resort to litigation in response to the forthcoming decision, a number of campaign groups have also made their positions clear. For instance: 
– Teddington Action Group has restated on 11 October its threat of judicial review should one of the two Heathrow options be chosen, alleging bias on the part of the chair of the Airports Commission, Sir Howard Davies.
– Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign has written to the Secretary of State for Transport on 4 August 2016 threatening judicial review, referring to John Steel QC having advised that “there are a number of potential grounds able to be considered which are sound, including that a decision to choose Gatwick as the location for additional runway capacity in the South East, if based on political expediency, would be irrational”. They assert that they expect to be supported by “two County Councils and seven Borough and District Councils” as well as a number of MPs. 


Of course, resorting to the courts to try to stop airport expansion is nothing new. For instance:
R (Hillingdon LBC) v Secretary of State for Transport  (Carnwath LJ, 26 March 2010) – the challenge by various local authorities to the Government’s 2009 decision (abandoned following the 2010 General Election) to proceed with a third runway at Heathrow. 
R (Sanders) v Airports Commission and Secretary of State for Transport  (Patterson J, 2 December 2013) – Stop Stansted Expansion’s unsuccessful challenge to Airport Commission’s sift criteria on which its shortlist was to be based, again alleging bias on the part of a member of the Commission.

R (Stop Stansted Expansion) v Secretary of State for Transport  (Sir Thayn Forbes, 13 March 2009) – the same group’s unsuccessful challenge to the Secretary of State’s decision in 2009 to allow planning appeals increasing the cap on passenger numbers to 35m per annum (a cap which Stansted Airport’s owner MAG is currently planning to apply to increase, according to a Telegraph September 2016 piece ).

R (Griffin) v London Borough of Newham  (Court of Appeal, 20 January 2011) – Fight The Flights’ unsuccessful challenge to Newham Council’s 2009 decision to increase the number of permitted flights to up to 120,000 per annum (since when of course the Secretary of State has now allowed a planning appeal for expansion of the airport in a decision letter dated 27 July 2016).

RSPB and Lydd Airport Action Group v Secretary of State and London Ashford Lydd Airport  (Ouseley J, 16 May 2014) – unsuccessful challenges to the Secretary of State’s 2013 decision to allow a planning appeal for expansion of London Ashford Airport at Lydd. 

– R (Barraud) v CAA (2015), an unsuccessful challenge by campaign group Gatwick Absolutely NOT, again advised by John Steel QC, to the Civil Aviation Authority’s decision to implement airspace changes, on the basis of lack of consultation, referred to in a 39 Essex chambers update, where an appeal to the Court of Appeal appears to be in abeyance according to the campaign group’s website.

 This list should be depressing for all of us. From one perspective, these cases, largely unsuccessful in achieving anything but delaying projects (and perhaps unnecessarily raising the hopes of those asked to crowdfund the appointed lawyers) demonstrate the dead hand of the judicial review process on controversial decision and projects. How can we make progress with any real pace when political sclerosis is then followed by years of public law litigation? On the other hand, how can we balance economic, environmental and transportation priorities in a way that does not lead to entrenched opposition and allegations of inconsistency? And, taboo question, are some projects so huge and so political that the unwritten legal burden of proof on the part of a claimant becomes almost impossibly high? Establishment of the Davies Commission was a valiant attempt to de-politicise what was always going to be a controversial process. Unfortunately we are back where we always were: mired in politics, lawyers at hand. 

Simon Ricketts 15.10.16
Personal views, et cetera

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