The post below was first published on our Public Law blog


On 27 February 2020, the Court of Appeal has handed down two related judgments both concerned with the Government’s policy in relation to the proposed expansion of Heathrow by way of a third runway, one dealing with the detail of how expansion should take place and the other considering the planning aspects and process of the policy. This latter case originated as five judicial review applications at the High Court. The policy in question was set out in the “Airports National Policy Statement: new runway capacity and infrastructure at airports in the south east of England” (the “ANPS”), which was designated by the then Secretary of State for Transport under section 5(1) of the Planning Act 2008.

The appellants in this appeal ranged from local authorities and climate change campaigners to the Mayor of London. The Court of Appeal was unconvinced by the appellants’ attempts to overturn the first instance judgment on various issues relating to the Habitats Directive and the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive and broadly agreed with the judgment of the Divisional Court on many of those aspects.

And then there was one…

The appellants succeeded today on only one ground: the Court of Appeal found that the designation of the ANPS was unlawful by reason of a failure to take into account the Government’s commitment to the provisions of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The question upon which the decision turned was what is “Government policy” relating to climate change, pursuant to section 5(8) of the Planning Act which requires that the reasons for the policy set out in the ANPS “must … 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” [emphasis added].

The court found that the Government’s commitment to the Paris Agreement was “clearly” part of Government policy by the time of the designation of the ANPS because the Paris Agreement was ratified and there were firm statements re-iterating Government policy of adherence to the Paris Agreement by relevant Ministers. The concept of “Government policy” did not have any specific technical meaning, but should be applied in its ordinary sense. In particular, there was nothing to warrant limiting the phrase “Government policy” to mean only the legal requirements of the Climate Change Act. The concept of policy is necessarily broader than legislation.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the Paris Agreement was not taken into account by the Secretary of State in the preparation of the ANPS and so there was no explanation provided as to how it was taken into account. Indeed it appears that the Secretary of State received legal advice that not only did he not have to take the Paris Agreement into account but that he was legally obliged not to take it into account, which amounted to a material misdirection of law at an important stage of the process.

Potential consequences

Although the appellants won today and at the time of seeing the draft judgment the Government did not seek to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, this is not necessarily the end of the matter.

The court decided not to quash the ANPS. Instead, it declared that the ANPS in its present form is unlawful and cannot have legal effect, which gives the Secretary of State the opportunity to reconsider the ANPS. The court stated that the initiation, scope and timescale of any such review must and will be a matter for the Secretary of State to decide. The court also explained that the duty in section 5(8) does not require the Government to conform to its own policy commitments, “simply to take them into account and explain how it has done so”.

Importantly, the court repeatedly emphasised the line between its judgment and the politics of the third runway:

“[We] are required to consider whether the Divisional Court was wrong to conclude that the Government’s policy in favour of the development of a third runway at Heathrow was produced lawfully. That is the question here. It is an entirely legal question. …”

“We have made it clear that we are not concerned in these proceedings with the political debate and controversy to which the prospect of a third runway being constructed at Heathrow has given rise. That is none of the court’s business…..”

“Our decision should be properly understood. We have not decided, and could not decide, that there will be no third runway at Heathrow.”

These comments reflect the well-established purpose and role of judicial review, aimed at ensuring that the Executive is held to account in its decision making but without straying into the sphere of policy making and politics.

The judgments can be found here: R (on the application of (1) Heathrow Hub Limited (2) Runway Innovations Limited) v Secretary of State for Transport [2020] EWCA 213 and R (on the application of Plan B Earth and others) v Secretary of State for Transport [2020] EWCA 214.

Andrew Lidbetter
Andrew Lidbetter
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Nusrat Zar
Nusrat Zar
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Jasveer Randhawa
Jasveer Randhawa
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