1st February 2011

Give us back our community, BAA

BAA currently owns more than 300 homes and other properties in the vicinity of Stansted Airport, mainly in Broxted, Duton Hill, Great Easton, Takeley and Tilty. 235 (i) of these were bought over recent years in connection with the proposed second runway plans, while 64 (ii) were bought during earlier attempts to expand the airport. The property portfolio includes one Grade I listed building and 38 Grade II listed buildings (iii) including one, Yew Tree Cottage, which has been left in a state of disrepair since a fire in March 2008 despite its listed status. It is now on the Essex County Council ‘at risk’ register.

Since the withdrawal of the second runway planning application in May 2010, SSE has been calling for BAA to sell back all the homes and other properties it acquired in connection with its expansion plans, offering the original owners first refusal, followed by existing tenants. There is a precedent for this: the failure of BAA to secure permission for additional runways back in the 1980s was met with a requirement by the government of the day to sell back land surplus to the requirements of a single runway (iv).

While BAA claims that it doesn’t want to flood the market (v) with its property portfolio, a phased sales programme is required – and this must be at a higher rate than that seen over the last five years in which time just 17 homes have been sold back into private ownership. While BAA says that it has a disposal strategy that it does not wish to disclose, this needs to be made public: visibility of the strategy would restore confidence in the wider housing market and indeed make it easier for BAA to achieve sales itself as it would be a positive sign to the community and potential buyers that they could plan ahead with some degree of confidence.

Significantly, none of the 17 homes which BAA has sold back over the last five years were located inside the expanded airport perimeter that was proposed in its planning application to accommodate a second runway. Sales of the properties within the perimeter would be a symbol of BAA’s good faith and would instil some confidence that we can start to rebuild our community. Instead, all that is visible at present is the continued advertising in the local press of BAA-owned properties to rent – including for multiple occupancy (vi) – as it struggles to fill vacant properties. BAA’s agents Strutt & Parker recently told (vii) SSE that they have not been given instructions to market BAA-owned homes for sale, or to notify tenants (who are understandably keen to know what their future situation is likely to be) about forthcoming arrangements.

Yet it is not for want of potential buyers. SSE is aware of tenants and former owners in Duton Hill, Molehill Green and Bambers Green, for example, who approached BAA to request that they be allowed to buy their rental homes. On each occasion, they were rebuffed by BAA (viii).

Meanwhile, BAA continues to claim that it is upgrading vacant properties in order to rent them out (ix). This is misleading, given that the standard of decoration and maintenance when the properties were first sold to BAA was generally very high. This is no longer the case because BAA has failed to invest adequately in maintaining the properties – and the disincentive to former tenants to make any investment in them because of the short term tenancies, typically just two months for the properties bought up since 2004, makes for a very transitory population. Older properties, especially listed buildings, also suffer if uninhabited for long periods, further compromising their state of repair.

Why is it so important that the homes return to private ownership? First of all, because BAA has caused the disintegration of the community with its proposals for a second runway and the blight which these have created. The schemes implemented for the buy back of properties within the blighted zone meant a sudden exodus of families within a very short timeframe, only to be replaced by a more transitory population with no long term security of tenure. Unsurprisingly, tenants on very short term leases do not generally have a strong motivation towards community involvement. The results have been falling school rolls, declining participation in parish councils, playgroups and other local activities and services. Not to mention the impact on social relations between neighbours. SSE’s Community Cohesion evidence (x) to the 2007 public inquiry addressed these issues and set out the experiences of those who have suffered as a result up to that point.

Indeed, the short term leases typically granted to those who have rented its properties in recent years have created a disincentive in terms of attracting families looking to establish a long term commitment to the community and thus to the investment in the repair and renewal of the buildings by those who live in them. BAA has undertaken just the barest minimum in terms of maintenance, seen most recently (January 2011) with the flooding of houses at Woodgates End, Broxted, where ditches had been allowed to fill up with debris as a result of BAA inaction to keep them clear over the years. The problems caused here over-spilled to owner occupiers who have seen a succession of empty properties and short term tenancies in the homes bordering theirs.

BAA claims that it wants to rebuild relations with the community but there is little evidence of this. The greater likelihood is that it wants to minimise opposition to future expansion plans which are fully expected to come back onto the agenda as soon as the airport operator gets a more favourable political wind. In the meantime, BAA has a financial incentive to retain the properties. This arises because airport charges at Stansted are regulated by the CAA and the way BAA is allowed to charge airlines for using Stansted is based on the Regulatory Asset Base of the airport, to which the £106.4m value of the property portfolio makes a significant contribution, far in excess of the offset rental income generated by the 300 homes which it owns (xi).

Having created more than eight years of blight, SSE maintains that BAA and any future owner of Stansted should be prohibited from building a second runway at Stansted for at least 50 years – either by voluntary agreement with the local authority or imposed by government as part of its forthcoming review of aviation policy which takes as its starting point the commitment to no additional runways at Stansted, Gatwick or Heathrow. The community has faced – and overturned – the threat of a second Stansted runway four times in the past 50 years (xii) and the people of this area have now earned the right to be given 50 years peace of mind in return. There is already a precedent. In 1979, BAA gave a legally binding guarantee that there would be no second runway at Gatwick for at least 40 years. It’s now Stansted’s turn.

(i) David Johnston, MD, Stansted Airport at the Airport Consultative Committee meeting, July 2010.
(ii) John Rhodes, RPS, Appendix 3 to Proof of Evidence at 2007 G1 Public Inquiry.
(iii) Douglas Kent, Technical Secretary, Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
(iv) Michael Spicer, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Hansard 17.06.1985, col 135.
(v) Nick Barton, Development Director, BAA, at Airport Consultative Committee meeting, Nov 2010.
(vi) Advert by Strutt & Parker for Grade I listed Warish Hall in Herts & Essex Observer, 20 Jan 2011.
(vii) Ms Roberts, Strutt & Parker, to Ms Barbone, SSE, in conversation at Woodgates End, 13 Jan 2011.
(viii) More information available to media on request.
(ix) Nigel Milton, Director of Policy and Political Relations, BAA on the Politics Show, 23 January 2011.
(x) SSE’s Community Cohesion evidence.
(xi) As at 31.12.2010, the £106.4m property portfolio accounted for 8.1% of Stansted’s RAB of £1,319m.
(xii) See SSE Timeline on this site.

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