It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle is clearing the way for a U-turn on Heathrow. Certainly that is the conclusion much of the British media has reached. While the reshuffle might have removed a couple of high profile political obstacles to a third runway, there is one major obstacle that will be far more difficult to remove: EU air quality limits.
EU law sets legally binding limits on levels of harmful pollution in our air. These limits, which are based on World Health Organisation guidelines, govern a number of pollutants which are damaging to human health. The limits for one pollutant, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), are currently being broken in towns and cities throughout the UK. But they are worst in London – which is thought to have the worst levels of NO2 of any EU capital.
Where limits are breached, EU law requires that an action plan be drawn up which achieves compliance in the “shortest time possible.” The Government’s plan for London shows that limits won’t be achieved until 2025.
This is the reason for ClientEarth’s ongoing legal challenge against the Government. We are asking the UK’s Supreme Court to order the Government to come up with a much more ambitious plan which will ensure limits are met in London and throughout the UK by 2015 at the latest.
So what does this have to do with Heathrow?
By law, planning permission should be refused where a development will cause air quality limits to be breached, or make air quality worse in an area where pollution already exceeds the limits. Given that Heathrow is a major pollution hotspot, this is deeply problematic. A third runway would inevitably lead to increased emissions of air pollution, not just from planes, but also from the increase in cars and taxis needed to carry passengers to and from the airport. Any decision to approve a third runway would therefore be vulnerable to a legal challenge. The government would also have a hard job persuading Brussels and the UK courts that its plans were really achieving limits “in the shortest time possible” while giving the green light to a project that would push legal compliance into the distant future.
Unfortunately for the pro-expansion lobby, environmental laws are harder to get rid of than troublesome ministers. But that won’t stop them trying – the Government is already lobbying in Brussels to weaken EU air quality laws. The EU is reviewing all its air pollution laws in 2013 and the UK has made no secret of the fact that it will use this opportunity to try to replace that annoying NO2 limit with something more “flexible”.
If they succeed, they will not only open the door for a third runway at Heathrow, but also undermine a crucial legal safeguard for human health. ClientEarth will be working flat-out over the next 12 months to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Page 7: “Working in partnership with other Member States, we will also use the European Commission review of air quality legislation, expected in 2013, to seek…amendments to the Air Quality Directive which reduce the infraction risk faced by most Member States, especially in relation to nitrogen dioxide provisions.”