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Heathrow Third Runway Airport Expansion, UK


Although there had been early signs of the proposal from 1997, the project of Heathrow expansion became official in December 2003, when the then British transport secretary, Alistair Darling, backed a third runway at Heathrow in the aviation white paper. That 2003 Air Transport White Paper asserted that there was a powerful economic imperative for an additional runway, with only the provisos that conditions relating to air quality, noise and improving surface access should be met.

In December 2006, in an update to the white paper, the then Labour British government reiterated its support for a third runway, despite the environmental agenda. Ministers again cited the economy as a key factor. The conservative and liberal governments, including Mayor Boris Johnson, were opposed to the plan.

In August 2007, many local and national groups which had been campaigning since 2002 against the airport expansion and also many autonomous environmental activists set up the Camp for Climate Action near Sipson, a village due to be demolished under the airport expansion plans, on the northern edge of Heathrow. Over 2000 protesters at the camp highlighted the catastrophic climate change impacts of air travel, and impacts on the economy and local community destruction and called for climate justice. They spent 2 weeks organising creative actions, workshops and activities against the third runway, blockaded the offices. The impact of the Climate Camp on the anti-third runway campaign was momentous. Activists, politicians and local people engaged in action and insurrection within sight of Heathrow and in the full glare of the world’s media sent out the most powerful of messages.

Since then the different groups have continued carrying on actions against the expansion plan. In January 2009 The British government approved a third runway, to take the number of flights handled by the airport from 480,000 to more than 700,000 a year. The announcement was condemned by opposition MPs, residents and green groups.

Much effort has been made by those in favour of airport expansion to ‘prove’ an incontrovertible economic case for it. But the economic benefits were often difficult to pin down. Not only is there lack of an agreed metric for accurately measuring the economic benefits but there are several unresolved and contested issues. The proponents of the third Runway especially faced a formidable environmental hurdle because of the climate change impacts of air travel. Aviation policy clashes with objectives for sustainable development and policy to tackle climate change.

The official permission came after six years of consultation, debate and controversy. However, in mid-May 2010 the Heathrow airport expansion was cancelled. The coalition of groups had taken the government before the High Court and they won. The judge had found that the Government’s decision in 2009 to give BAA the green light for the third runway was flawed. He ruled that it did not take into account the most recent evidence on climate change and economics because it was based on the 2003 Air Transport White Paper.

This decision came as a result of an iconic campaig spanning nearly a decade. The triumph was no fluke. It wasnt a question of luck. It was the result of a clear strategy, a radical approach, daring tactics and an utter refusal to believe that the protesters wouldnt win.

However, despite the victory, new plans and proposals for the expansion of the airport are continually in the works. The climate camp is now an annual event held in different locations in the UK and around the world.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Heathrow Third Runway Airport Expansion, UK
Country:United Kingdom
State or province:London Borough of Hillingdon
Location of conflict:London
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Infrastructure and Built Environment
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Ports and airport projects
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Specific commodities:Tourism services
Transport Services

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The new runway was expected to open and immediately increase flights to 605,000 by 2020 and 720,000 by 2030 - up from 480,000 in 2009.

It would had also implied the construction of a new terminal, capable of handling 35 million passengers per year, would serve long and short-haul services. A new tunnel would allow the A4 to pass under taxiways between the airport and the new runway. The M4 spur to the airport would also have to be moved and hard shoulders on the most congested motorways would be opened up to be used during peak times.

Construction would provide up to 60,000 jobs. Operating the expanded Heathrow would create up to 8,000 new jobs at Heathrow by 2030.

It would had been built north of the airport. The development would had resulted in the loss of around 700 homes, including the entire community of Sipson and Heathrow Primary School.

Type of populationSemi-urban
Start of the conflict:2003
Company names or state enterprises:BAA - now called Heathrow Airport
Relevant government actors:British government, Hillingdon Council, Hounslow Council
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:No Third Runway Action Group, Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, ClearSkies (usually found as HACAN ClearSkies), Friends of the Earth England UK, Heathrow Climate Camp, Plane Stupid, Airportwatch, New Economics Foundation, The Richmond Heathrow Campaign, Greenpeace UK, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Enoughs enough, World Development Movement, The Campaign to protect rural England, The Aviation Environment Federation, The Campaign for Better Transport, WWF UK

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
environmental activists
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Land occupation
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Climate camps


Environmental ImpactsPotential: Air pollution, Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution
Health ImpactsPotential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Other environmental related diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Militarization and increased police presence, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Application of existing regulations
Project temporarily suspended
Proposal and development of alternatives:Not to build the third runway.
- More support to sustainable transport.
- A ‘better not bigger’ Heathrow would work for both business and the environment.
- High-speed rail has a role to play.
- Video-conferencing has an important role to play.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:The coalition brought the British government before the High Court due to the expansion project and the judge found that the Government’s decision in 2009 to give BAA the green light for the third runway was flawed. He ruled that it did not take into account the most recent evidence on climate change and economics because it was based on the 2003 Air Transport White Paper.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

The Climate Change Act 2008 (c 27)

Directive 2008/101/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 November 2008 amending Directive 2003/87/EC so as to include aviation activities in the scheme for greenhouse gas emission allowance trading within the Community:

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Super-interesting report from HACAN about the story of how the campaign to stop the third runway at Heathrow was won:

Website Plane stupid:

Newspaper article: The new face of activism. The Guardian.

Website with lots of info from Airportwatch: good reasons

Wikipedia article: Expansion of London Heathrow Airport:

Newspaper article. BBC. Q&A. A third runway at Heathrow:

Web from greenpeace UK: Heathrow third runway cancelled: we won!:

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Youtube videos from the 2007 climate camp:

Video about the building of the climate camp:

Meta information

Contributor:Amaranta Herrero
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:69




On 13th May London Mayor Sadiq Khan joined the local Hammersmith & Fulham No Third Runway Group to emphasise his opposition to a third runway at Heathrow.

Graphic: Heathrow Airport.

Heathrow Airport's new runway