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Legal Challenges to Heathrow -Wasting Taxpayer's Money or Not?

Airports, and their proximity to residential areas, has long been a sore point among those who live near them. However, with some exceptions, many of the world's busiest airports were built before expanding towns and cities began to surround them. Protests over airports have been around since the dawn of the jet age, at the end of the 1950s and continued throughout the 1960s and since. The questions however, have to be asked; firstly, if you buy or move into a house under the flight paths to or from a busy airport, do you have the right to complain about something that was there before you? Secondly, how many people live near (or even next to) an airport, doing so because they derive, directly or indirectly, their jobs to that airport?

Above - Heathrow's Terminal 5 has been an unusually empty space during the Covid-19 pandemic (Heathrow Airport Ltd)

Below - New generation aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are much quieter and more environmentally-friendly than earlier jets (Kevan James)

The answer to the second question is most residents. Not all but most - and they do so because of the convenience of being close to their place of work. So where do the complaints come from? Traditionally, airliners use a gradual descent approach to landing, meaning flying level for a time before descending again, flying level again and finally landing. This procedure means many aircraft fly over residential areas that can be some distance from the airport itself and it is from here that many of the complaints arise.

Today however, two things have changed quite noticeably. The first is that jet engines are considerably quieter than they once were. There is no denying that the screaming howl of the first-generation jet airliners did cause a lot of disturbance to those living beneath them. The modern-day engine however, is much less of an intrusion. It is still there however, so the second change is an ongoing and steady alteration from the previous method of a gradual approach to a continuous one. This means that aircraft descend from the heights at which the noise is unheard, and instead of flying straight and level, drop straight into the airport and land. The procedure does require considerable refinement - decades of handling large numbers of arrivals don't go away until they have gone away and the reason the existing procedures have been used is that they are proved to be safe.

In the meantime, London Heathrow, as the primary gateway to the United Kingdom, has always been one of the busiest in the world. What it has never been however, is the busiest overall. For decades it was the world's busiest international airport with more flights from other countries than any other. It has now dropped behind Dubai and will in all probability also be overtaken by Paris Charles de Gaulle. Both airports have greater runway capacity and occupy a greater land area than Heathrow - Paris has four runways. Which rather makes the achievements of the UK airport - and the country as a whole - quite striking.

The decision to build a new runway at the West London hub has inevitably created its own storm and thus far, protests have been quite vocal and limited to the very occasional physical protest - a good thing as innocent travellers, be they business people or holidaymakers, do not need, nor do they deserve, to have their journeys disrupted by the illegal blocking of either roads or runways. The most significant action has been through Courts of Law and the recent judgement against the new runway has been highlighted as a 'great victory' by campaigners. Was it?

Above - the ability to move cargo, including medical supplies, has proven vital during the Covid-19 pandemic (Kevan James)

No. It was not. The judgement did not say that a new runway could not be built. Only that one particular aspect to it needed to be re-examined. This the airport has undertaken to do. On top of this however, has been the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has devastated not just air travel but every single aspect to previously well-established ways of life, both in the UK and everywhere else. It has though, provided a chance to look afresh at some things, which by itself is not a bad thing and one of these is the costs of mounting the court actions. A statement from the Back Heathrow campaign group pointed out that the legal challenges have used taxpayer's money to fund the actions. The statement can be found below.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of both a new runway or the objections to it, there is another factor to be considered; that of the UK's departure from the European Union (EU). As a nation independent of obligations to the EU, the UK will, as the Covid-19 outbreak recedes, need to rebuild its economy and increase its ability to trade freely with the world. Although significant amounts of goods can and do use container ships and the sea, Heathrow Airport is the busiest cargo port in the country - it is not just people that move through it. This aspect has been graphically demonstrated during the Covod-19 pandemic and equally graphically, also demonstrates the vital nature of air transport.

Life will, at some point, return to normal the world over and if the United Kingdom is to prosper, Heathrow will still need a new runway. Many of the engines that create the noise (and the pollution) that people complain about, are made here in the UK. Instead of spending large amounts of taxpayer's money on legal challenges, and on demonstrations against airports, these efforts would be better directed toward the continual improvement in clean, noise-free engines.

© Kevan James 2020.

Above - the ability of people to travel, for business or pleasure, is going to be vital as the world recovers from Covid-19 (Heathrow Airport Ltd)

The Back Heathrow Statement:

Freedom of Information Requests have revealed that local councils and Transport for London have spent nearly £1m of your money challenging Heathrow’s expansion in the last 18 months alone.

In the period from September 2018 to March 2020 Hillingdon council, Windsor and Maidenhead council, Hammersmith and Fulham Council, and Transport for London spent £944,603 on legal fees, publicity and the direct funding of anti-expansion campaign groups.

We believe the actual spending is higher because neither Richmond nor Wandsworth councils have revealed their expenditure, despite the FOI request.

Boris Johnson’s home borough of Hillingdon spent £159,626.50 on legal fees, £528.65 on publicity and funded anti-expansion campaign groups such as Stop Heathrow Expansion and the No 3rd Runway group to the tune of £52,000 and £134,696.50 respectively.

Elsewhere, Transport for London spent £452,336 on legal fees, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead spent £110,417.71, and Hammersmith and Fulham spent £35,000.

This news comes to us at a time when local services are at a full stretch and the need for public services is great. In total, from previous FOI requests, these public bodies have wasted a combined sum of nearly £3m of tax-payers money opposing Heathrow’s new runway over the past decade – and de facto blocking the jobs and apprenticeships the area desperately needs.

At Back Heathrow, we would like to see an end to this waste of resources and for bodies to engage constructively with the project to ensure that we build the cleanest and greenest new runway in the world.

Peter Kavanagh (the London and Eastern Regional Secretary of Unite the union) said: “These councils should be spending their resources on public services for their citizens. It is not the time to be wasting money on expensive lawyers. Now, more than ever, we need to create quality unionised jobs with a new runway at Heathrow airport.”

Warren Kenny, GMB union’s London regional secretary said: “After Parliament finally gave the green light it is extremely disappointing to discover the extent to which local councillors went to shed loads of taxpayers’ money and to further extend and prolong the process. This is a serious waste of tax-payer money on what, to the public, is time-wasting and infighting between different parts of the government. The public takes a very dim view of this activity.”

Sally Smith, the Chief Operating Officer of Hounslow Chamber of Commerce said: “If the UK is to fight back this economic crisis, the government and London councils should make Heathrow and the new runway the centrepiece for our economic recovery. Expensive legal challenges will jeopardise 180,000 new jobs and 10,000 apprenticeships – just at the time when they are needed most.”

Here is a breakdown of how councils and TfL spent taxpayers’ money opposing Heathrow expansion between September 2018 – March 2020:

Hillingdon £159,626.50 on legal fees, £528.65 on publicity. Stop Heathrow Expansion given £52,000. No 3rd Runway group given £134,696.50.

Transport for London £452,336 spent on legal fees.

Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead £110,417.71 on legal fees.

Hammersmith and Fulham £35,000 on legal fees.

Richmond and Wandsworth Have not completed the request for information

The airport's history, including the truth behind its origins in World War II,

are revealed in Kevan James' book,

Heathrow Airport 70 Years and Counting

Reviews on the home page Available now from and

Coming Soon:

So You Want To Start An Airline

by Andy Martin

All the questions and answers about how airlines work

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