Heliport hovers in the balance

The recent Court of Appeal ruling on moves to establish a unique floating heliport on London's Thames has far from cleared up the question marks hanging over the proposals.

Thames Heliport, the company behind the £1.5 million scheme, wants to convert the 150ft Father Thames, at present a floating restaurant, into a floating heliport. It then plans to use it on various sites along a 10-mile tidal stretch of the Thames.

If the company's scheme goes ahead it could well pave the way for other similar ventures on other tidal rivers in the UK, because inter-city air travel is increasingly seen as a viable alternative to road travel.

However, the recent Appeal Court action failed to make a definitive ruling on the planning position in relation to this and other such schemes.

Thames Heliport's argument was fought on two main platforms. First, it was argued that, because the scheme would be on tidal river waters and operate as a heliport while unconnected to the banks or bed of the river, the normal planning consent required for a heliport on dry land would not be necessary.

If that argument failed then the company contended that it would still not need consent, because its scheme entailed using the floating heliport at 22 different locations over a 10-mile stretch of the river for 28 days at each site. Under General Development Order rules, this would still allow the scheme to operate without formal planning approval.

The court left the first argument undecided, holding that dry-land planning rules "could" apply to the scheme, but not ruling for certain that they did apply. Lord Justice Schiemann said: "Helicopters landing on or taking off from a vessel floating, but not moored, on the tidal River Thames could constitute a change of use of land for the purposes of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act."

The court left an even bigger question mark over the legality of such a scheme operating under a General Development Order. Although the case had been fought as a "friendly" action in a bid to establish what are regarded as important planning points, the court said it was for the 10 planning authorities involved to decide whether the 10-mile stretch of water was to be regarded as one planning unit or whether the 22 different locations all had their own individual planning status.

Smita Edwards, the planning partner at Frere Cholmeley Bischoff, who with aviation partner Mark Franklin handled Thames Heliport's case, said the decision left her clients with the prospect of having to approach all the local authorities in question to seek certificates of lawfulness of the proposed use or development in respect of the plan to use each individual location under General Development Rules.

"It was a great disappointment that the court decided it did not have the jurisdiction to decide that point and that it was a matter which had to be dealt with by the planning authorities," she said.

The upshot is that the matter, which has already run up significant legal bills and which has an over-long litigation history, could now end up back in one of the most cumbersome planning melting pots ever devised. If pursued it could spawn further planning litigation.

It is possible the matter may end up in the House of Lords. Leave to appeal to the Law Lords was refused by the Court of Appeal, but consideration is being given to a direct application being made for leave.