7th February 2020

High court won’t intervene on airport planning application

Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE) has expressed disappointment at the High Court decision, announced today [7 February 2020], that the Secretary of State for Transport does not have a statutory duty to treat the current Stansted Airport planning application as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP).

The case was heard in the High Court on 12-13 November 2019 by Mr Justice Dove where the central legal issue was the statutory definition of an NSIP under the Planning Act 2008. [Note 1]

SSE began these High Court proceedings in August 2018 with the aim of ensuring that Stansted Airport’s planning application for permission to grow to 43 million passengers a year (mppa) would be scrutinised at national level rather than dealt with locally by Uttlesford District Council (UDC).

The expectation at that time was that UDC would approve the airport planning application and so SSE considered it important to have a second (legal) line of defence. UDC did, provisionally, approve the application (in November 2018) but that provisional approval was overturned by the new UDC Planning Committee just two weeks ago [24 January 2020].

The fact that it has taken the High Court almost three months to deliver its ruling indicates that the arguments may have been finely balanced. SSE has yet to decide whether to seek leave to appeal.

Should Stansted’s owners, the Manchester Airports Group (MAG), appeal against UDC’s refusal to grant permission, the planning application would be examined at a Public Inquiry, with the Secretary of State making the final decision. [Note 2] In other words, the application would be decided at national level in any event.

SSE Chairman Peter Sanders said: “We are currently considering our options because there are different procedures to be followed depending on whether this application ends up being dealt with through the traditional appeal process of a Public Inquiry or is designated as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project. The NSIP process would be less expensive and less resource-intensive than a Public Inquiry for both SSE and Uttlesford District Council.”

Peter Sanders added: “Regardless of how events unfold in the coming months and beyond, UDC’s rejection of these proposals for further major expansion at Stansted Airport has demonstrated the kind of resolve that we hope will be shown everywhere in future when an applicant seeks to ride roughshod over the health of the local community and in disregard of the climate emergency.”


There are two principal ways in which a planning application can be determined at national level:

  1. Section 23 of the Planning Act 2008 sets down certain thresholds for airport development proposals to be categorised as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). In addition, the Secretary of State for Transport has some discretion to define an airport development proposal as an NSIP under section 35 of the Act. NSIPs are dealt with by the Planning Inspectorate which, after receiving an application for a Development Consent Order (DCO) and reviewing all the relevant evidence, will make a recommendation to the Secretary of State as to whether to issue a DCO and, in the event of a decision to do so, on any conditions to be attached.
  2. Section 78 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides the right for an Applicant to appeal to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government against a Local Planning Authority’s refusal to grant planning permission. The Secretary of State will normally then appoint an Inspector to chair a Public Inquiry to consider the relevant evidence. In the case of substantial and/or controversial applications the Inspector does not make the final decision but instead provides a report with recommendations for a decision by the Secretary of State.


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