Heathrow airport has lobbied Scottish ministers and MSPs over 40 times in two years to back a proposed third runway in London, according to the Holyrood lobbying register.
Since March 2018 Heathrow officials have held 15 meetings with seven ministers urging them to support the airport’s expansion. They included the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, and transport secretary, Michael Matheson.
The airport has also lobbied SNP MSPs and political advisers 18 times in favour of expansion, as well as opposition MSPs 10 times. Campaigners opposing expansion have held just two lobbying meetings.
The Scottish Government has maintained its support for expanding Heathrow airport despite growing controversy over the climate pollution that could result. It insisted that a third runway would bring greater connectivity, jobs and investment to Scotland.
But the government has come under attack for being caught in the aviation industry’s “claws” and bowing to its demands. Ministers seem “embarrassed” by how much time they have given Heathrow, campaigners said.
On 16 December the UK Supreme Court gave a green light for the third runway, enabling Heathrow to seek planning permission. The court overturned an earlier ruling that the scheme was illegal because of its climate emissions.
But Heathrow has said that the collapse of flying caused by the coronavirus pandemic could delay its expansion plans by five years to 2030. The airport suffered an 88 per cent drop in passenger numbers in November, and has closed terminal four until the end of 2021.
In 2016 the Scottish Government signed a memorandum of understanding with Heathrow airport backing its expansion. But Nicola Sturgeon said in January 2020 that the position was being reviewed in the light of the “climate emergency”.
In August, however, transport minister Matheson said that the government was still backing a third runway. It was a “major infrastructure project which will bring significant job creation and investment opportunities to Scotland,” he told MSPs.
On 16 December the Scottish Government published a long-awaited update to its climate change plan that didn’t mention Heathrow. The following day Sturgeon told MSPs that the climate crisis meant there was “a big question over new runways”, but argued that Scotland should benefit if Heathrow were expanded.
The Ferret has analysed all the entries recorded by Heathrow in the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register. These only covered face-to-face meetings, and don’t include emails, telephone calls or online meetings when videos have been turned off.
They also don’t include any meetings since March 2020, because of permitted delays in submitting information to the register. Heathrow is known to have taken part in a fringe meeting at the SNP’s online conference on 30 November.
The register has details of 13 meetings between Heathrow officials and seven Scottish ministers, often at SNP conferences. The case for the third runway was discussed at every meeting.
On 22 March 2018 Heathrow’s then interim chief operating officer, Derek Provan, talked to Nicola Sturgeon at an export awards dinner in the Hilton hotel in Glasgow. “A brief update was provided on progress made to date regarding Heathrow’s proposed expansion,” the register said.
On 14 October 2019 the airport’s head of public affairs, Nigel Milton, met and talked to Sturgeon at an SNP conference in Aberdeen. His aim was “to update the First Minister on the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport”.
Milton also gave a speech to the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, the then economy secretary, Keith Brown, and others at an SNP conference reception in Aberdeen on 8 June 2018. He stressed “the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport and the associated benefits to Scotland”.
According to the register, there were four meetings between Heathrow and the transport secretary, Michael Matheson, in 2018 and 2019. There were also meetings with ministers Humza Yousaf, Ivan McKee and Ben Macpherson.
In answer to a question in the Scottish Parliament on 11 December 2020, Matheson listed four Heathrow meetings. Two of them with the airport’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, were also in the lobbying register but the two most recent – on 31 March and 8 October 2020 – have not yet been registered.
However, Matheson did not mention two other Heathrow meetings that were in the register. These both took place at SNP conferences, one on 8 October 2018 in Glasgow and the other on 14 October 2019 in Aberdeen.
In his parliamentary answer Matheson also failed to mention three meetings with other ministers. He was asked by Liberal Democrat MSP, Liam McArthur “on what dates ministers have met Heathrow airport since 21 June 2018”.
In addition the lobbying register records 16 other meetings between Heathrow officials and SNP MSPs in 2018 and 2019. These were mostly at party conferences, including the “Heathrow Lounge” set up at the SNP conference in Aberdeen in October 2019.
Some of those lobbied as MSPs were also ministers, including Kate Forbes, John Swinney, Michael Russell, Derek Mackay, Paul Wheelhouse and Ash Denham. Heathrow also recorded lobbying two SNP political advisers.
There were nine registered Heathrow meetings with Conservative MSPs, mostly at the party’s conference in Aberdeen in May 2019. There was one meeting with Labour’s transport spokesperson, Colin Smyth MSP, at a party conference in Dundee on 9 March 2019.
Sturgeon was also lobbied in favour of expansion by the budget airline, EasyJet. At a meeting in the Scottish Parliament on 17 May 2018, she was informed of the “opportunities for Scotland from an expanded Heathrow” by the company’s chief executive, Johan Lundgren.
The lobbying register has records of just two meetings with the No Third Runway Coalition, which brings together MPs, councils and campaigners opposing Heathrow expansion. One was with an SNP political adviser, Stewart Maxwell, on 11 December 2018, and the other was with Labour’s climate change spokesperson, Claudia Beamish MSP, on 21 June 2018.
The sustainable transport campaign, Transform Scotland, accused ministers of having previously “prostrated themselves before aviation lobbyists” on airport taxes. “It is surprising that the ministers have not been more careful around Heathrow’s lobbyists,” said the group’s director, Colin Howden.
“Heathrow’s lobbyists have distorted Scottish transport and climate policy so that Scottish ministers have nothing to say on the unsustainable volume of short-haul flights from the Scottish central belt to London.”
He added: “Transport is the largest source of emissions, and aviation the most polluting form of transport, so the ministers’ silence on emissions from flights to London airports suggests to us that the aviation industry’s claws remain firmly embedded.”
Friends of the Earth Scotland argued that combating a climate emergency and backing Heathrow expansion were incompatible. “This remarkable catalogue of lobbying meetings reveals a government that is still trying to have both action on climate change and more flying, when you can clearly only have one of these things,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.
“Flying is the most climate-damaging form of transport and the Scottish Government’s own figures show that building a third runaway would result in an increase to Scotland’s emissions equivalent to adding 17,000 cars to our roads.”
Dixon was also concerned that Matheson had not told the “whole truth” when he told MSPs about his meetings with Heathrow. “Perhaps the government is being coy because ministers are starting to be embarrassed by how much time they have been giving to Heathrow’s lobbying effort,” he added.
Scottish LibDem MSP, Liam McArthur, said he would ask ministers why he hadn’t been given a full list of meetings with Heathrow. “The fact that ministers aren’t minuting them is a scandal,” he told The Ferret.
“There isn’t any reasonable explanation as to why these meetings are kept under wraps to such a degree. The public has a right to know about the promises the SNP is making to Heathrow.”
The Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, who led the campaign to introduce the lobbying register, described the links between the SNP and Heathrow as “very concerning”. Meetings had taken place at dinners, events or “cosy chats” at SNP conferences, he alleged.
He added: “It is about time this lobbying exercise was opened up to scrutiny so we can establish what exactly is going on. As the old saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch.”
The Scottish Government pointed out that the decision to support Heathrow airport’s expansion was taken by the UK Government and UK parliament. “It is normal and proper for Scottish ministers to meet with a wide range of stakeholders,” said a spokesperson.
“We have been clear that when the expansion of Heathrow airport, the UK’s only global hub airport, goes ahead then it should deliver benefits for all the nations of the UK. The memorandum of understanding we signed with Heathrow ensures Scotland would benefit from this major infrastructure project when it goes ahead, by bringing significant job creation and investment opportunities.”
The government spokesperson added: “This is why we remain committed to the memorandum of understanding with Heathrow airport which has already delivered benefits including the reinstatement of the Inverness-Heathrow link.”
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “It is standard procedure for politicians to meet with businesses to maximise the opportunities in their constituencies and we will continue to work with Holyrood to ensure our airport delivers even more for Scotland in future.
“Heathrow’s links to Scotland have helped to strengthen domestic connectivity, support exporters and boost tourism, creating more jobs and economic opportunities for every corner of the UK.”
In July 2020 The Ferret revealed that most lobbying of Scottish ministers had been carried out by big business. The Confederation of British Industry in Scotland lobbied 13 ministers on 52 occasions between March 2018 and July 2020.
How Heathrow has lobbied Holyrood
|22 March 2018||First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon||awards dinner, Hilton hotel, Glasgow||“progress made to date regarding Heathrow’s proposed expansion”|
|10 May 2018||economy secretary, Keith Brown||Scottish Parliament||“the proposed expansion of Heathrow”|
|10 May 2018||SNP MSP, Kate Forbes||Scottish Parliament||“the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport and the economic benefits that the project would deliver for Scotland”|
|10 May 2018||13 ministers and MSPs||reception, Scottish Parliament||“the importance and value of connectivity to Heathrow airport to Scotland’s economy and the proposed expansion of Heathrow”|
|8 June 2018||speech to two ministers, 11 MSPs and a political adviser||reception, SNP conference, Aberdeen||“the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport and the associated benefits to Scotland”|
|12 June 2018||transport minister, Humza Yousaf||London Olympia||“the need for expansion at Heathrow Airport”|
|12 June 2018||Humza Yousaf||London Olympia||“Heathrow airport’s commitment to ensuring expansion delivers for Scotland”|
|15 June 2018||SNP MSP, Kenneth Gibson||Hunterston terminal, Ayrshire||“the proposed expansion of Heathrow”|
|1 October 2018||Conservative MSP, Corry Maurice||Conservative Party conference, Birmingham||“the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport”|
|7 October 2018||Europe minister, Ben Macpherson||dinner, SNP conference, Village hotel, Glasgow||“Heathrow's continued commitments to Scotland”|
|7 October 2018||SNP MSPs, Stewart Stevenson and Ash Denham||dinner, SNP conference, Village hotel, Glasgow||“potential benefits of Heathrow expansion to Scotland”|
|8 October 2018||transport secretary, Michael Matheson||SNP conference, Glasgow||“issues surrounding Heathrow and Heathrow expansion”|
|5 December 2018||Michael Matheson||Scottish Parliament||“the strategic case for Heathrow expansion”|
|23 January 2019||SNP MSP, Jenny Gilruth||Scottish Parliament||“the case for Heathrow expansion”|
|9 March 2019||Labour MSP, Colin Smyth||Scottish Labour conference, Dundee||“Heathrow-related developments including expansion and connectivity with Scotland”|
|3-4 May 2019||seven Conservative MSPs||Conservative party conference, Aberdeen||“the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport”|
|22 May 2019||Michael Matheson||Scottish Parliament||“connectivity between Heathrow and Scottish airports”|
|22 May 2019||Conservative MSP, John Scott||Scottish Parliament||“the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport”|
|14 October 2019||Nicola Sturgeon||SNP conference, Aberdeen||“the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport”|
|14 October 2019||Michael Matheson||SNP conference, Aberdeen||“the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport”|
|14 October 2019||11 SNP MSPs including John Swinney, Kate Forbes, Derek Mackay, Michael Russell, Humza Yousaf, Paul Wheelhouse and two political advisers||SNP conference, Aberdeen||“the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport”|
|11 March 2020||trade minister, Ivan McKee||Scotland House, London||“Heathrow's expansion plans and the benefits to Scotland”|
|31 March 2020||Michael Matheson||not known||not known|
|8 October 2020||Michael Matheson||not known||not known|
This story was updated at 10.50 on 18 December 2020 to add comments from the LibDem MSP, Liam McArthur. Cover image thanks to iStock/PeterHulse.