Why won’t the Secretary of State make basic commitments?

We believe that the Airports National Policy Statement (NPS) needs to be updated to take account of the NetZero target in the Climate Change Act. The NPS is the key policy document which sets out the Government’s approach to an application for permission (technically for a “Development Consent Order” (or DCO) to expand Heathrow. 

Over the last few weeks we have sought to engage with the Secretary of State around the question of whether he will agree to update the NPS. Although we think this should be a straightforward decision, we appreciate that the Secretary of State may wish to think it through. But our concern is that, meanwhile, the operators of Heathrow Airport might make a DCO application which would be considered under the current (we believe unlawful) version of the NPS. With that in mind, we sought two assurances from the Secretary of State:

First, that he give us a timescale for reaching his decision. The response? That it is “premature for the Secretary of State to commit to any expected timetable”. We don’t think this is good enough.

Secondly (and more importantly), that under no circumstances would a DCO application from Heathrow Airport be considered until after the Secretary of State has finished considering our request for review of the NPS. This seemed to us like an entirely sensible ask – if a decision was reached to review the NPS, the entire purpose of that review would be lost if a DCO application was considered under the outdated existing policy statement. The horse will very much have bolted.

What we got in response is quite extraordinary. The Department for Transport says there is no need to provide such a commitment now as the planning process is so long that it would take “approximately 13 months before it would reach the Secretary of State for a decision to grant or refuse development consent”. That seems to us bizarre, akin to moving the goal posts whilst the players are on the pitch. The Secretary of State’s decision on a DCO application is the last step of many. Surely Heathrow Airport and the Secretary of State will want to know whether the policy is going to be revised before large sums of money are spent on preparing a DCO application? And surely third party objectors impacted by the project should know the policy position before they prepare their responses?

All of this begs the question – why won’t the Secretary of State make the commitment? If Government is serious about its climate change commitments, it should say, and clearly, that it won’t consider the application until after it has made up its mind on the policy.

It’s also unsatisfactory. We are now making a focussed request for documents and communications between Heathrow Airport Limited and the Department for Transport / the Secretary of State in relation to DCO applications. We have made this ask before in correspondence, but are now doing it through a formal process under the Environmental Information Regulations.

Noted environmentalist George Monbiot has joined Dale Vince and Good Law Project as a potential co-claimant in this case. George was involved in our previous claim in relation to the Energy NPS (where the Government conceded that it needed to review its policy). 

The battle against climate change is too important to be kicked into the long grass. We don’t propose to allow the Secretary of State to do so.


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