19th March 2021

Member letter

Dear Supporter,

My apologies for not having been in touch since December but it’s been an extremely busy time for SSE.  For the past three months we have been almost exclusively focused on dealing with the Stansted Airport Public Inquiry which started in January and finished on 12 March.  In fact, it’s been extremely busy since July last year, when preparations began for the Inquiry. That was immediately after the unwelcome decision of Manchester Airports Group (MAG) to appeal against the Uttlesford District Council (UDC) decision to refuse its 2018 Planning Application.

You will recall that in January last year, UDC’s Planning Committee decided by 10 votes to nil to refuse permission for MAG’s proposals to expand Stansted Airport to a throughput of 43 million passengers per annum (‘mppa’).[1] .From the outset we have been very clear that our key role at the Inquiry was to do our utmost to defend the refusal decision of the UDC Planning Committee.

Unfortunately, UDC has been far less clear about its own role.  On the very first day of the Inquiry, UDC Counsel, instructed by officers, declared that MAG’s proposals were acceptable, subject only to certain conditions – conditions which, in our view, were so timid as to render them almost meaningless.  There has been no attempt by UDC to mount a robust defence of the refusal decision of its own Planning Committee – an extraordinary state of affairs.

UDC decided to submit no evidence whatsoever on matters relating to forecasting, economics, employment, health impacts, road traffic impacts or impacts on rail services, nor any evidence to highlight the special character of the local area, nor to defend the longstanding vision enshrined in the Local Plan of an ‘Airport in the Countryside’.  Not only did UDC fail to defend its own decision but on several occasions its actions had the effect of obstructing or undermining SSE’s efforts.

This latest exposure of UDC’s limited resources might have been avoided if responsibility for considering the original application had been passed at the outset to central government – or if UDC had supported SSE in our failed attempts to persuade Government to ‘call in’ the decision-making process.

On a more positive note, I am immensely proud of SSE’s Inquiry team. Our own specialists, supported by external experts and two of the country’s top planning barristers (both QCs), worked together to present comprehensive and compelling evidence to the Inquiry on 11 separate topics. The result was that MAG directed most of its firepower at trying to counter the SSE evidence, rather than UDC’s evidence, such as it was.

We all realise, of course, that this is a David and Goliath battle, but it is important to remember that it was David who won that battle, and he did so by giving it his best shot.  That is exactly what SSE has done on this occasion.  We could not have done more.  We must now just wait to see whether this has been enough.

We expect it will be about three months before we hear the outcome but there is voluminous evidence which the Panel of three Inspectors must now carefully review and there are important legal and national policy issues at stake, so it may take longer before we have a decision.

I must at this stage thank not only our own team but also all of the local residents, parish and town councils and other organisations who gave evidence to the Inquiry, every single one urging the Inspectors to reject the appeal.  There were countless outstanding contributions and the Inspectors could not have failed to notice the pride and the passion of the local community in drawing attention to our responsibility to future generations to care not only for the local environment, but also for the wider environment.  Climate Change is a ‘here and now’ issue and the priority is to find solutions, not to keep exacerbating the problem, which is what would happen if MAG were to win its appeal.  The Inspectors were left in no doubt about that.

I must also say an enormous thank you to all of our members and supporters who sent in donations towards our fighting fund. We would not have been able to finance the QCs, the outside consultants, or the additional IT equipment required to set up our Inquiry ‘hub’ at the Radisson Blu hotel, without such generous support.

Those of you who have ‘tuned’ in to watch the Inquiry via the weblink may have seen that in his Opening Submissions on 12 January, Tom Hill QC, representing MAG, was highly critical of SSE’s opposition to MAG’s expansion plans for Stansted and he threatened a costs application against both SSE and UDC.  In the event, MAG decided only to pursue UDC for costs.  A costs award could only arise in the event of MAG winning its appeal.

Whilst it was a relief to have confirmation that there was no risk of SSE being sued by MAG for a very significant sum of money, we always considered this a highly unlikely prospect.  Our legal advice was that – provided we presented a coherent, well evidenced case – there was no risk of a costs award against SSE whatever the outcome of the Inquiry.

On the subject of SSE’s finances, I do need to report that our funds are currently in a very depleted state.  In the course of fighting this Public Inquiry we have committed almost all the funds that it has taken us many years to accumulate. We must now start to rebuild our campaign fighting fund and there may be an urgent need to do so.  If the result of this Public Inquiry goes against us, and if there is a legal issue which needs to be challenged, we would need to be in a position to mount that challenge almost immediately.  The legal limit for any challenge is just six weeks after the decision, which is no time at all because a legal team needs to be assembled and instructed, and the grounds for challenge need to be drafted and submitted.

Just to be clear, I am not predicting such an outcome but merely stating that we need to be prepared for that eventuality, and we won’t be prepared if the cupboard remains bare.

Let us all hope that the outcome of this Public Inquiry sets down a long overdue marker that we owe it to the next generation to put environmental considerations – local and global – first.  Such considerations greatly outweigh any duty to provide more cheap flights to Torremolinos, which might line the pockets of Ryanair and MAG but are of little or no benefit to the UK economy.

Finally, for those who may be interested, a full record of the Inquiry, including a video record, can be found at https://programmeofficers.co.uk/ssairport/ and a selection of the most relevant Inquiry documents is also available at https://stanstedairportwatch.com/library/information-centre/

Yours sincerely

Peter Sanders, Chairman

[1] This is 53% more than Stansted’s 2019 throughput of 28.2mppa and only 8% less than Gatwick’s 2019 throughput of 46.6mppa. And, for the record, Stansted will handle just 3mppa in the year to 31 March 2021.

Campaigning to ensure Stansted Airport's authorised operations stay below harmful limits