Heathrow warns 'no global Britain' without third runway after legal setback

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Campaigners cheer outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London after they won a challenge against controversial plans for a third runway at Heathrow. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

A senior figure at Heathrow airport has warned there will be “no global Britain” without a third runway, urging UK businesses to lobby the government for expansion.

The call comes after a legal setback last week left the controversial expansion of Europe’s busiest airport in limbo.

The Court of Appeal ruled the government must rethink their support as they had not fully considered the environmental impact. Campaigners said it had “killed off” the project, which the airport estimates would cost £14bn ($18bn).

Emma Gilthorpe, Heathrow’s executive director for expansion, warned blocking projects was “not the way to defeat climate change” in a speech at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) annual conference on Thursday.

Read more: What to do if you are a Flybe employee or passenger

She warned “carbon is the enemy, not aviation,” arguing Heathrow could be expanded in a way that still met the government’s environmental commitments.

“We are getting our own house in order,” she told business leaders. Heathrow has slashed its infrastructure emissions by 93% in three decades, is investing £100m in renewables and energy efficiency and will help passengers offset their flights, she said.

Gilthorpe also argued growth could be decoupled from rising carbon emissions, with passenger numbers up 25% but emissions down 3% since 2005.

“Stopping Heathrow expansion will just mean people fly to and from airports with weaker environmental targets,” she said.

Read more: Budget should launch ‘hardship’ fund for firms hit by coronavirus

With Heathrow handling 40% of UK exports by value to non-EU countries and Britain looking to secure global trade deals, she said expansion was key to increase routes and business around the world.

Supporters of expansion are hoping the government will rewrite its airport strategy to include environmental commitments, which they believe will still enable it to back the extra runway.

But some fear the government’s commitment to the project, which prime minister Boris Johnson once promised to stop by lying down in front of bulldozers as London mayor.

Gilthorpe urged the local business leaders from across the country gathered at the conference to “remind the government” how much the airport matters to firms.

The government itself does not plan to appeal the decision, and has been accused of a “strange muteness” since the ruling by backbench Conservative MPs.

Ministers say it is for those behind the project to appeal over a privately funded, private-sector scheme, with Heathrow chiefs and a firm offering a rival expansion bid both set to challenge the ruling.

Greenpeace UK called on the government to “cancel the third runway once and for all” after the court’s decision last week.”

The appeal had been brought by a group of councils, environmental campaigners and London mayor Sadiq Khan. The mayor called the decision a victory for Londoners who are “passionate about tackling the climate emergency and cleaning up our air.”