14th November 2019

Airport denies plans to expand to 50 million passengers a year

Stansted Airport Limited (STAL) has denied that it is planning to expand the airport to a throughput of 50 million passengers a year (mppa), well beyond the 43mppa limit applied for in its 2018 planning application, which continues to be under consideration.

STAL’s denial came from Thomas Hill QC, representing STAL, on Wednesday 13th November in the High Court in connection with SSE’s legal challenge over the handling of the current 43mppa Stansted Airport Planning Application. Mr Hill gave the Judge a categorical assurance on behalf of STAL that 43mppa was the “ultimate capacity” of the Stansted runway and that STAL had no expansion plans beyond that.

However, the previous day (Tuesday 12th November) SSE’s barrister, Paul Stinchcombe QC, had provided the Judge with multiple sources of evidence demonstrating that STAL was planning to expand Stansted to 50mppa and intended to do so in two stages: first, by seeking an 8mppa uplift in the cap, to 43mppa; and then later seeking a 7mppa increase to 50mppa. Moreover, the Department for Transport (DfT) was aware of all this and knew also that the existing runway was capable of handling 50mppa.

The significance of this is that any airport expansion project (or combination of projects) which could result in an additional 10mppa must, by law, be dealt with at national level by the Secretary of State rather than by the Local Planning Authority – i.e. Uttlesford District Council (UDC). [Note 1] Expansion to 50mppa would be 15mppa above the present 35mppa cap, and would therefore require detailed national scrutiny. STAL’s current 43mppa planning application is below the 10mppa threshold and STAL wants it to be approved locally. SSE believes that this is because STAL wants to avoid the more detailed national scrutiny process. [Note 2]

SSE had amassed its evidence over the past two years primarily through the disclosure of the notes of confidential meetings that took place between STAL and DfT officials in 2017 and 2018. The DfT was subject to a ‘Duty of Candour’ to provide SSE with the confidential information as soon as SSE filed its Judicial Review application with the High Court. This evidence – running to several hundred pages – was augmented by notes of meetings between STAL and Uttlesford District Council (UDC) in 2017 and 2018, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It was further augmented by additional disclosures provided by the DfT to SSE, following a High Court order issued by the Judge in June of this year.

Since September 2018, however, SSE has been bound by a Non-Disclosure Agreement (‘NDA’) – a so-called ‘gagging order’, imposed by the DfT on behalf of the Secretary of State – which prohibited SSE from disclosing certain documentary evidence. The NDA no longer applies because the information, having been presented and discussed in the High Court, is now deemed to be in the public domain.

Another key element in SSE’s case was the critical importance of tackling climate change and the need for the Secretary of State to have a clear national strategy for limiting aviation emissions. SSE argued that it was irrational for the Secretary of State to allow local authorities to make decisions on airport planning applications which could give rise to millions of additional tonnes of CO2 emissions whilst, at the same time, instructing local authorities that they were not to take account of these CO2 emissions! The Judge acknowledged that SSE’s point on carbon emissions “appeared to have some traction”.

Court protocol requires that we do not refer to the evidence in any detail prior to the case being finally determined. Suffice to say at this stage that we believe the evidence is unambiguous. Whether it is sufficient for SSE’s High Court challenge to succeed, remains to be seen. The Judge has given no indication as to when he might issue his ruling.

SSE Chairman Peter Sanders commented: “We have undoubtedly given the Judge a great deal to think about and we must now wait and see whether that will be enough. In challenging the combined forces of the Secretary of State, the Manchester Airports Group and Uttlesford District Council, it is obviously essential to present the strongest possible case supported by the clearest possible evidence. We have certainly given it our best shot. We’ve learned, however, never to make predictions in this type of case.”


Note 1: Stansted Airport handled 28mppa last year and so expansion to 50mppa would represent an increase of 22mppa (79%) compared to 2018.

Note 2: The Secretary of State for Transport was represented by Charles Banner QC. UDC did not present any evidence. However, the fact that they had shown themselves to be content to determine the 43mppa planning application provided a clear indication that they opposed SSE’s argument which was that the application should be determined by the Secretary of State rather than by UDC.

Peter Sanders, SSE Chairman, T 01799 520411; petersanders77@talktalk.net
Brian Ross, SSE Deputy Chairman: T 01279 814540 or (M) 07850 937143; brian.ross@lineone.net
SSE Campaign Office, T 01279 870558; info@stanstedairportwatch.com

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