13th March 2006

BAA Slammed for survey bias – again

The BAA survey issued as part of its second Stansted runway consultation has come in for widespread criticism over bias.

Local residents and parish councils responding on behalf of their communities have slammed the questionnaire for providing inadequate information on the impact of a second runway and for giving the misleading impression that a second runway is a foregone conclusion. The absence of a ‘No Runway’ option in a question about BAA’s preferred site for a second runway is a major cause of anger over what has been widely regarded as a flawed piece of research that falls below the standard necessary for an effective consultation.

This is the second time in less than two years that a BAA survey has been condemned for being biased. A MORI poll in 2004 on compensation proposals caused such a furore over the structure of the questionnaire and the use of leading questions that formal complaints were made to MORI and the Market Research Society’s professional standards department. The results were never published.

Typical of comments on the survey is the criticism by Little Hadham Parish Council’s chairman, Tony Skidmore, who said the council chose not to complete the questionnaire because it was biased. However, in a letter to Terry Morgan, Mr Skidmore commented on missing information: “You ask respondents to rank various environmental impacts ranging from ground noise to housing provision yet, extraordinarily, omit climate change and global warming.”

The Parish Council thought so-called ‘benefits’ listed in the questionnaire were highly questionable including job creation, particularly at the airport where budget airlines were trying to cut staff, and tourism, where low cost flights were contributing to the UK’s rising tourism deficit.

The current questionnaire was distributed with BAA’s consultation document on the second runway plans and to those attending its mobile exhibition, with a website version available online.

An audit by Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE) of comments on the survey from residents and councils highlight a series of criticisms, notably:

  • Lack of vital information on matters such as the likely impact of a second runway on the environment, health, noise, future flight paths and transport information that would materially influence people’s opinions
  • The presumption that there would be a second runway somewhere, and the absence of a ‘No Runway’ option in BAA’s question on preferred location. The printed questionnaire even lacks an opening statement that puts the questions in context
  • No explanation that Government support for an additional runway is conditional on BAA satisfying stringent criteria on environmental impact, health and surface access, and gaining planning approval
  • Questions that are confusing, complex in relation to information provided or apparently designed to provide a positive outcome raising further concerns over the soundness of the survey

Criticism of the survey follows SSE’s formal response to BAA in which chairman Peter Sanders rejected all runway options as unsustainable.

He said that consultation ahead of the planning application compromised the planning process. In a letter to Terry Morgan, BAA’s managing director, he said: “If you are seriously asking members of the public to choose between them [the various options], you should at least put forward sufficient information to enable a meaningful choice.”

The failure to provide a standardised summary of some quite complex issues on the questionnaire itself calls into question its validity, compounded by an invitation to approach BAA for help in completing the questions. Confusing terminology is also employed: respondents are asked how often they ‘use’ the airport rather than fly from it.

Some questions are so lacking in clarity that the answers are likely to be meaningless. Others use terms that the residents may not understand, or appear skewed.

“It seems that the poll is more designed to convert people to BAA’s preferred runway option than to gain an objective picture of what people really think,” said SSE Campaign Director Carol Barbone. “Such a questionnaire might suffice for a simple product launch but it is scandalous for such spin to be put on a complex and sensitive issue. We have grave doubts about the value of any analysis which follows from its results.”

Stop Stansted Expansion is urging all members of the public concerned about BAA’s proposals to nevertheless make their opposition clear to the airport developer, either by letter or by using Uttlesford District Council’s special response postcard from the latest issue of Uttlesford Life. SSE’s own letter and appendix in response to the BAA consultation and a selection of responses from local councils can be found on SSE’s website at: www.stanstedairportwatch.com

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