JANUARY 6, 2002
The government is appealing against a court ruling critical of night flights at London's Heathrow airport because taxpayers could face a bill of £2bn ($2.9bn).
Confidential documents obtained by the Financial Times show that the Treasury has thrown its weight behind the decision of the Department for Transport, Local Government, and Regions to appeal because of the ruling's financial implications.
The European Court of Human Rights found in October that the government had violated the rights of residents near Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport. The level of noise allowed by regulations on night flights breached the right to respect for private and family life. The eight residents who brought the action were each awarded £4,000 compensation.
The department has calculated that between 100,000 and 500,000 other people living around Heathrow could claim compensation as a result of the court's ruling, depending on the level of noise used as qualifying criteria. This would result in a bill between £400m and £2bn. The bill could be even bigger if residents near other airports took action.
It is unusual for the government to seek leave to appeal against judgments by the European court because it deals with the sensitive issue of human rights. However, Andrew Smith, chief secretary to the Treasury, "would strongly support" an appeal, according to a confidential letter by John Prescott, deputy prime minister. Mr. Smith believes the judgment "had significant cost implications", says Mr. Prescott in his letter to Stephen Byers, transport secretary.
The letter suggests that Margaret Beckett, environment secretary, may not support for the appeal. Mrs. Beckett thought "it was important that an appeal should not be construed as the government subordinating environmental concerns to economic ones".
The government's chances of succeeding on the merits of the appeal are 60-40 in its favour, according to a legal opinion sought by Mr. Byers. Philip Havers, a senior lawyer, says his assessment reflects "what we consider to be good evidence as to the economic benefits of night flying".
Mr. Havers says the European court "seriously undervalued" and "plainly ignored" evidence put before it on the economic benefit of night flights. He highlights evidence from British Airways suggesting that night flights operated by airlines to Heathrow contribute about £1.3bn in gross domestic product and support 11,000 jobs.
Mr. Byers in November said he would consult on stricter controls on night flights by the end of 2003. There are about 15 flights in and out of Heathrow between 11.30pm and 6am.
Mr. Havers said changes to restrict night flights could undermine the government's appeal against the European court's ruling.
Source: The Financial Times