Further rounds of legal challenges to airport expansion will bring the law into disrepute.

Ah, nostalgia. On 22 January 1981, New Scientist magazine’s cover feature reported what it claimed was ‘the decisive battle in the 28-year war of attrition that has characterised the history of the London airport system’. I know, because as a spotty young journalist I supervised the edition being cast in lead type by unionised printing tradesmen.

Later that year, I picked up an IATA paper airline ticket from a high street travel agent, hailed a black cab to Heathrow and flew in a bonegratingly noisy Boeing 707 to the Middle East. On the last leg of the flight I was the only passenger. 

Thirty-five years on, both air travel and journalism have changed beyond recognition. But the decisive battle in what is presumably now a 63-year war of attrition over London’s airport system is still being fought. So readers may understand my sense of frustration the other day when Angus Walker of City firm Bircham Dyson Bell, an expert in the 2008 Planning Act under which the new Heathrow runway will supposedly be fast-tracked, outlined to me the scale of legal challenges ahead. 

For what it’s worth, I didn’t particularly agree with the government’s Heathrow decision. (I would have gone for Heathrow Hub’s northern runway extension, plus Gatwick’s second runway and the RiverOak scheme for Manston in North Kent.) But at least we have a decision. To sabotage it through the courts would imperil not just the UK’s economic growth and international reputation for competence (such as it is…) but also, I believe, respect for the rule of law.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the individual cases, judicial process is already held in fairly low esteem following the Iraq human rights furore; a sentiment ripe for exploitation by populist politicians. This can only get worse if the current article 50 challenge to the government’s powers on Brexit succeeds. 

The consequences of the courts dragging out an already decades-old debate, which has finally been resolved by national democratic mandate, could be grim. We need to accept that a decision has been made. Certainly, the Heathrow development should be scrutinised minutely for any deviation from the government’s promises on environmental impacts, but to sabotage it from the word go would be an affront to democracy and, dare I say it, the national interest. 

Ah, my green friends will say: what about a higher duty, to the global environment? The glib answer is that airliners are getting more quiet and efficient all the time: in 1981, the Boeing 707, even at full load, burned three times as much fuel per passenger kilometre as its modern equivalents. Its noisy turbojet engines would be banned from any commercial airport today. And in the electronic ticketing and online booking age it is unusual to find any spare seats, let alone an empty cabin. 

Yes, but aren’t these improved efficiencies outpaced by the growth in demand for air travel, which it would be highly irresponsible to encourage? Perhaps.

But those who favour the kind of command economy that rations air travel and other consumer goods are free to vote for one; a number of political parties have manifestos along these lines. Attempting to implement such a policy through the courts brings the rule of law into disrepute. 

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor