* Heathrow, to west of London, is UK’s biggest airport
* Legal battles, political wrangling have long blocked expansion
* PM Johnson opposes expansion, spokesman says to respond later
* Ruling comes amid COVID-induced downturn, Brexit uncertainty
* Heathrow keen to retrieve crown as Europe’s busiest hub (Adds PM spokesman’s comment, bullets)
LONDON, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Britain’s top court gave the go-ahead to the expansion of Heathrow Airport on Wednesday, allowing the 14 billion pound ($19 billion) plan to proceed after decades of legal battles and political wrangling.
The Supreme Court ruling overturned a previous court decision that had blocked the plan on environmental grounds.
Heathrow, Britain’s biggest airport, currently has only two runways and is keen to proceed despite the plunge in air traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic that has seen it lose its crown as the busiest hub in Europe.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been a vociferous opponent of the expansion, which was approved under the previous government. As mayor of London, he said in 2015 he would lie down in front of bulldozers if necessary to stop construction of the third runway.
His spokesman said on Wednesday the government had noted the court’s judgment and would respond in due course.
In February, a court had declared the expansion unlawful, ruling in favour of climate change campaigners. The judge had said that a failure to take into account the British government’s commitments on climate change was “legally fatal” to the plans.
But a Supreme Court judge told a virtual session on Wednesday that the government had taken climate change commitments into account when designing its airport policy.
“For these reasons, the Court unanimously concludes that the appeal should be allowed. The airports national policy statement is lawful,” Judge Philip Sales said.
Since February, the aviation sector has been hit by its worst ever downturn, meaning Heathrow now has plenty of spare capacity, but the airport said another runway was still vital for the future.
“Demand for aviation will recover from COVID-19, and the additional capacity at an expanded Heathrow will allow Britain as a sovereign nation to compete for trade and win against our rivals in France and Germany,” a Heathrow spokesman said in a statement.
Heathrow and its supporters argue that Britain’s departure from the European Union makes expansion critical to ensuring the country can increase trade with the rest of the world. The new runway won’t be opened until the 2030s, Heathrow has said.
The airport is owned by Spain’s Ferrovial, the Qatar Investment Authority and China Investment Corp, among others.
Though it is Britain’s biggest airport by value, its two runways compare with Paris’s and Frankfurt’s four and Amsterdam’s six. Before the pandemic, it had no space to add new flights.
The project has been hotly debated in Britain for almost half a century. The new runway was previously approved in 2009 before being scrapped the following year, and then approved again in 2018.
Wednesday’s ruling represents a setback to wider hopes among climate campaigners of using Heathrow as a test case to develop similar legal challenges to heavily polluting transport, energy or other projects in other countries.
Heathrow said that its expansion plan must now go through a planning process that will require it to prove expansion is compliant with Britain’s climate change obligations before construction can begin. ($1 = 0.7408 pounds) (Additional reporting by Michael Holden and Kate Holton; Editing by Alex Richardson and Gareth Jones)