What Are The Non-Airport Implications Of The Heathrow Ruling?

The Court of Appeal’s approach to the issues in the Heathrow cases last month was certainly a surprise to many.

The court found in the main “Plan B” ruling (27 February 2020) that the Secretary of State had acted unlawfully when, following the procedure in section 5 of the Planning Act 2008, on 26 June 2018 he designated the Airports National Policy Statement. The court’s basis for its finding was that the Secretary of State had not complied with section 5(8):

(7) A national policy statement must give reasons for the policy set out in the statement.

(8) The reasons must (in particular) include an explanation of how the policy set out in the statement takes account of Government policy relating to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change.”

The question was what was “Government policy” in relation to climate change as at 26 June 2018. The court found that the Secretary of State had acted unlawfully in not taking into account “its own firm policy commitments on climate change under the Paris Agreement”.

This is somewhat surprising given that at first instance the Divisional Court (Hickinbottom LJ and Holgate J, no slouches) had found that this submission was unarguable:

In our view, given the statutory scheme in the [Climate Change Act 2008] and the work that was being done on if and how to amend the domestic law to take into account the Paris Agreement, the Secretary of State did not arguably act unlawfully in not taking into account that Agreement when preferring the NWR Scheme and in designating the ANPS as he did. As we have described, if scientific circumstances change, it is open to him to review the ANPS; and, in any event, at the DCO stage this issue will be re-visited on the basis of the then up to date scientific position.” (paragraph 648 of the main judgment at first instance, known as “Spurrier” after the then first claimant, who had represented himself at first instance but had dropped out by the time of the appeal, which is why you will hear the appeal ruling called “Plan B” after the lead appellant, campaign group Plan B Earth).

(For a wider summary of the proceedings at first instance see my 4 May 2019 blog post Lessons From The Heathrow Cases).

The Court of Appeal has ordered that the Airports National Policy Statement “is of no legal effect unless and until the Secretary of State has undertaken a review of it in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Planning Act 2008.”

Heathrow Airport Limited has applied to the Supreme Court to appeal from the ruling although the Secretary of State has not (meaning that any appeal could be fairly irrelevant if the Secretary of State decides to review the NPS in any event). Whether permission to appeal is granted depends on whether the Supreme Court considers that there is an arguable point of law of general public importance.

So this is all significant as regards the proposal for a third runway at Heathrow. According to the Planning Inspectorate website the application for a development consent order under the Planning Act 2008 NSIP procedure is/was expected to be submitted in Q4 2020.

The main function of the NPS was to give formal national policy support to the proposal at Heathrow. The way that the Planning Act 2008 works is that, under section 104, the Secretary of State must decide a DCO application in accordance with any relevant national policy statement “except to the extent that one or more of subsections (4) to (8) applies.

(4) This subsection applies if the Secretary of State is satisfied that deciding the application in accordance with any relevant national policy statement would lead to the United Kingdom being in breach of any of its international obligations.

(5) This subsection applies if the Secretary of State is satisfied that deciding the application in accordance with any relevant national policy statement would lead to the Secretary of State being in breach of any duty imposed on the Secretary of State by or under any enactment.

(6) This subsection applies if the Secretary of State is satisfied that deciding the application in accordance with any relevant national policy statement would be unlawful by virtue of any enactment.

(7) This subsection applies if the Secretary of State is satisfied that the adverse impact of the proposed development would outweigh its benefits.

(8) This subsection applies if the Secretary of State is satisfied that any condition prescribed for deciding an application otherwise than in accordance with a national policy statement is met.

(9) For the avoidance of doubt, the fact that any relevant national policy statement identifies a location as suitable (or potentially suitable) for a particular description of development does not prevent one or more of subsections (4) to (8) from applying.

So the first thing to note is that the NPS would not have given Heathrow Airport Limited a free pass to a consent – in determining the application the Secretary of State would need to determine whether, notwithstanding the June 2018 NPS, the proposal is not in accordance with, for instance, up to date treaty obligations or domestic legislation – exactly the point made by the Divisional Court in the passage I quoted earlier.

This is relevant because the issue in the Heathrow cases very much turned on an historical question – what was the Government’s climate change policy as at 26 June 2018. Legislation and policy has plainly moved on since then, and will continue to move on. I referred in my 10 August 2019 blog post The Big CC to Theresa May’s tightening in June 2019 of the Government’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by making the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019 which changed the duty of the Secretary of State under the Climate Change Act 2008 from being to ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline, to being at least 100% lower, ie net zero. The target does not include international aviation or shipping: paragraph 10.5 of the explanatory notes published with the order states that there is a “need for further analysis and international engagement through the international networks. For now, therefore we will continue to leave headroom for emissions from international aviation and shipping in carbon budgets…” By the time that any Heathrow DCO application is to be/would have been determined, the Secretary of State would have to take into account climate change legislation and international commitments at the time.

It can all of course get messy/political, as demonstrated by former Energy Secretary Andrea Leadsom’s approval last year, against her inspectors’ recommendations, of the Drax gas-fired power stations DCO, a decision which is now being challenged in the High Court by ClientEarth (see Drax legal case: We’re taking the UK government to court over Europe’s largest gas plant, ClientEarth, 30 January 2020).

Although it would be a risky strategy to adopt, given it would entail acknowledging loss of any formal statutory policy support for Heathrow as the favoured option, Heathrow Airport could in theory decide to proceed with a DCO application without the support of an NPS (this appears to be Gatwick’s strategy with its proposed northern runway). In the absence of an NPS, section 105 applies:

(2) In deciding the application the Secretary of State must have regard to—

(a) any local impact report (within the meaning given by section 60(3)) submitted to the Secretary of State before the deadline specified in a notice under section 60(2),

(b) any matters prescribed in relation to development of the description to which the application relates, and

(c) any other matters which the Secretary of State thinks are both important and relevant to the Secretary of State’s decision.”

How even to begin to scope the appropriate approach to decision-making in that situation…

Any wider relevance?

So does this ruling have repercussions away from Heathrow and airports?

People threaten to bring judicial review proceedings, and often end up bringing them for all sorts of reasons. Lord Reed, President of the Supreme Court, made some topical comments to the House of Lords Constitution Committee last week:

Judges are very well aware of the risk of challenges being brought in what are political rather than legal grounds. They are repelling them and are careful to avoid straying into what are genuine political matters. When this is a matter that is to be considered it should not start from the premise that judges are eager to pronounce on political issues. The true position is actually quite the opposite.” (Law Society Gazette, 4 March 2020).

Since the ruling we have seen these stories:

Environmentalists follow Heathrow ruling by calling on government to end fossil fuel developments (Ecotricity, 4 March 2020) (The Secretary of State has a discretion in section 6 of the 2008 Act as to whether and when to review NPSs, and indeed since June 2019 Government climate change targets have been clear regardless of what the position was at June 2018 – which is surely the only relevance of the Heathrow rulings – if the point made by the prospective claimants is a good one, it has been a good one for some time now).

HS2 legal challenge launched by Chris Packham (Guardian, 3 March 2020) (There is surely no duty on a minister to take into account Government climate change targets in making a decision to continue with the construction of an existing project which has already, phase 1 at least, been authorised by Parliament).

What did it for the Secretary of State in relation to the Heathrow NPS was the specific statutory duty to take into account “government policy” on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Regardless of whether the Court of Appeal was right to determine that Government support for the Paris Agreement (international) targets could be construed as government policy for any particular domestic targets, there is not the same statutory duty when it comes to the Town and Country Planning Act system.

When it comes to plan-making, section 19(1A) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 imposes a statutory duty on local planning authorities that development plan documents must include policies that contribute to mitigation and adaptation to climate change, and this duty is reflected in paragraph 149 of the National Planning Policy Framework, stating in footnote 48 that policies should be “in line with the objectives and provisions of the Climate Change Act 2008”.

There are no specific equivalent requirements in relation to decision making, just the general statement in paragraph 148, stating that the “planning system should support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate” and “should help to: shape places in ways that contribute to radical reductions in greenhouse emissions”.

Beware those who wave about the Heathrow ruling as some kind of game changer in relation to the battle against climate change. It is certainly a game changer in relation to Heathrow Airport’s aspirations, as to project timescale at the very least, but, wider than that? The Court of Appeal determined that a specific statutory duty, peculiar to the making of NPSs, was breached. The question of whether there was a breach depended on determining what government policy on climate change was in June 2018, when it was not as advanced as it is now. Finally, it is not obvious to me that the Court of Appeal’s conclusions would be safe against an appeal to the Supreme Court – but of course all that could well be largely hypothetical, depending upon what steps the Government now takes.

The awaited national infrastructure plan, which was to be published alongside the budget on 11 March, is to be delayed but reportedly could still be “before May” (Government delays Budget infrastructure plan, BBC, 5 March 2020). It will be interesting to see whether any hints are dropped in our new Chancellor’s budget statement as to the Government’s direction of travel.

Simon Ricketts, 7 March 2020

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

One thought on “What Are The Non-Airport Implications Of The Heathrow Ruling?”

  1. Hi Simon – interesting to see that you have just focused on Plan B’s case and not Friends of the Earth’s success, which won on more grounds and is of wider significance being as it was based on section 10 of the Planning Act 2008 and the SEA Directive. So that means it is relevant for a) any review of NPS as well as designation, and b) to the interpretation and application of the SEA Directive. Furthermore, you have also not commented on the Court’s ruling in Friends of the Earth’s case that failure to consider the Paris Agreement, Non-Co2 warming impacts of aviation, and climate change beyond the 2050 target in the Climate Change Act 2008, was “obviously material” and so irrational not to have taken those issues into account. Whilst I am not saying that this changes everything it is a significant finding and can be of wider significance to other situations where proposals present significant climate impacts too. I think your blog over simplifies the situation, and also focuses on just one aspect of a much bigger win (i.e. Plan B’s case and not Friends of the Earths).

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