26th November 2003
Stansted and the Air Transport White Paper. What can we Expect?
1. The case against a second Stansted runway
2. The process of preparing and publishing the White Paper
3. The realities of implementing White Paper ‘decisions’
4. Wider matters expected to be included in the White Paper
1. THE CASE AGAINST A SECOND STANSTED RUNWAY
In June 2003, Stop Stansted Expansion (‘SSE’) filed a detailed 107-page response to the government’s proposals for expanding Stansted. This dealt comprehensively with the wholly unacceptable environmental impacts, provided a powerful rebuttal of the stated economic case and set out alternative policies for government to consider.
On the eve of publication, SSE has reminded government of four key issues:
The strength of the Stansted campaign
While other airport communities in the south east are divided on the issue of airport expansion, there is virtually unanimous local opposition at Stansted. The Stansted campaign is unmatched in terms of the breadth, depth and unanimity of local support. Organisationally and financially, the SSE campaign is also unmatched and, as has been amply demonstrated this year, Stansted is not and never will be a soft political option: as in the past the community will continue to fight any expansion proposals ‘tooth and nail’.
The unsuitability of Stansted
A second runway would make Stansted even bigger than Heathrow – five times its present size – and urbanise a predominantly rural area. The relative impact would also be enormous. The area around Stansted has neither the people (negligible unemployment) nor the houses to host an airport on this scale. c50,000 houses would need to be built and c150,000 people (ie. workers with their families) attracted for an extra runway.
If Heathrow were to be deemed unsuitable, Stansted is not the alternative. Assessment must be made on a case-by-case, not ‘either/or’, basis, taking into account the full range of environmental, economic, surface access, housing, heritage, employment, health and education considerations. If, against all the arguments, the government insists on expansion in the south east then it should instead look to the opportunities for an offshore airport in the Thames Gateway area – in need of regeneration, jobs, with available brownfield sites.
A second Stansted runway is not deliverable
The major national airlines are united in opposing immediate expansion plans for Stansted. Even BAA acknowledges that a second Stansted runway could not be commercially justified on a standalone basis. Like SSE, British Airways, Virgin and BMI, Luton Airport, BAR UK (representing the scheduled airline industry) have all made clear that they would mount a legal and regulatory challenge on competition grounds if there was any proposal to build a second Stansted runway in the absence of a standalone commercial justification, on the basis of cross-subsidisation (also ruled out by the regulator – the CAA).
SSE is ready for court action on other fronts, too, and stands ready to challenge the content of the White Paper in other ways if Stansted is included. The opportunity is enhanced by the slipshod nature of the DfT consultation which provides a raft of legal avenues to block a proposal for a second runway.
Much has been reported in the press about the EU air quality directive (EC 1999/30) and this is one of the opportunities for a legal challenge. The air quality directive applies just as much to Stansted as to Heathrow because it is framed in absolute terms and would be breached whether 260 or ‘just’ 20 households were to be subjected to NOx exceedances as a consequence of a new runway development. A fivefold increase in Stansted’s operational size resulting from one extra runway would create major emissions problems from road transport potentially worse than those predicted to accompany a third runway at Heathrow because of the poor public transport links to Stansted.
This government’s ‘green’ credentials
Major expansion of Stansted Airport has already been considered by two separate public inquiries and a Royal Commission – and always rejected because environmental costs greatly outweighed the benefits. Endorsed by all previous governments, these findings can be no less today than then given progress in understanding environmental issues. It is inconceivable that the present government could apply a lesser environmental standard today.
2. THE PROCESS OF PREPARING AND PUBLISHING THE WHITE PAPER
What exactly is a White Paper?
It’s statement of future government policy. In this particular case, the Air Transport White Paper will aim to set out the government’s policies for meeting expected air transport needs across the UK over the next 30 years. It will provide a strategic framework as a guide for developers and airport operators, the aviation industry, communities and others to understand how the government wants predicted increases in demand for air travel to be met. This in turn will help local authorities and agencies to address the planning implications this has for regional development, infrastructure and services in the broadest possible context.
What will the White Paper cover?
The Transport Minister has made it clear on numerous occasions recently that the White Paper won’t be prescriptive: it will instead look at a range of measures for tackling the bigger picture of responding to predicted increases in demand across the UK and not just siting additional runways (if indeed any additional runways are needed).
What measures should the Government take to relieve the pressure for new runways in the south east?
SSE believes that there are four principal measures that the Government should take:
* Removal of aviation’s wholesale tax exemptions which result in the underpricing of air travel and artificially high demand
* Better utilisation of existing airport capacity throughout the UK
* The possible option of an offshore airport in the Thames Estuary
* A commitment to rail/air substitution for short haul travel
If new runways are to be sanctioned, what happens next?
If the way is cleared for proposals for new runways to be submitted, this will not mean the automatic granting of planning permission – or that extra runways would ever be built. For the south east, many people believe that the government will simply ‘leave the door open’ for developers to come forward with planning applications for new runways at existing airports subject to relevant environmental, infrastructure and other legal requirements being met. This way, it could pass much of the blame for the impact on communities onto airport developers when the time comes – which could be many years into the future.
What is SSE’s view on the development of runways at other sites in the south east?
Much recent discussion has focused on which of the existing airports in the south east should be expanded – notably Heathrow or Stansted. However, assessment of locations for any new runway needs to be made on a case-by-case basis, not an ‘either/or’ scenario. When considered in this way it is evident that neither Stansted nor Heathrow would be suitable for an additional runway.
Who writes the White Paper – and who signs it off?
The Department for Transport has the lead responsibility for producing the White Paper but since it needs to be approved by government as a whole, all government departments with an interest in its contents are involved in the preparation of the White Paper and in approving its content. The actual drafting is easy and about 90 percent will be uncontroversial and quickly agreed.
How will controversy between government departments be resolved?
Resolving the controversial issues before completion of a White Paper can take considerable effort, with weeks of argument between civil servants with opposing views and responsibilities – known to be the case with this White Paper. Sometimes the differences can be resolved by clever, ambiguous wording – but not always. Where there are substantive disagreements, the issues are referred up the line by civil servants to Ministers to resolve – junior Ministers in the first instance.
Most of the outstanding issues are resolved at that level, but not all, in which case there is reference up the chain of command to the Secretaries of State. If the outstanding issues still cannot be resolved at that level, then a Cabinet sub-committee thrashes them out. The final draft of the White Paper then goes to Cabinet for rubber-stamping.
How long does it take to appear once decisions are taken?
Once the Cabinet has signed off the White Paper, it will only be a matter of three or four days before thousands of copies of the final version are available. The latest date for final sign off is 11th December if the government is to meet its target of publishing by the end of the year (ie. before 18th December).
When is the White Paper due to appear?
The government has said that the White Paper will be published before Christmas, ie. by 18th December. Given the extensive and controversial debate that has surrounded its contents and taken so much time, most people expect publication to take place at the very last moment – probably on the 16th or 17th December. (17th December is also the anniversary of the first flight, 100 years ago, by the Wright brothers.)
How will the White Paper be made public?
Immediately before publication, the Secretary of State for Transport (currently Alistair Darling) is expected to make an announcement statement to the House of Commons (around 15-20 minutes in length) and then take questions from MPs for about half an hour. A similar announcement is made almost simultaneously in the House of Lords. (Rumours, of course, will be rife in the days leading up to the announcement and publication.) A press release will normally be issued as soon as the Secretary of State begins his announcement.
Links to electronic versions of the White Paper will be put onto the SSE website, together with details of the campaign’s response.
Will MPs have a chance to vote on the White Paper?
There will be no vote on the White Paper because it is not legislation: it is merely a statement of government policy. There may, however, be a debate in the New Year, although in what form this might take place is not yet clear. Some aspects of the White Paper are likely to require legislation in due course, for example, amendments to the 1986 Airports Act are anticipated and these will be required to be debated and voted upon in Parliament in the usual way.
3. THE REALITIES OF IMPLEMENTING WHITE PAPER ‘DECISIONS’
What could prevent an extra runway being built at Stansted – if there is a presumption in favour of development within the White Paper?
Many legislative constraints and other challenges would have to be overcome before a new runway could be built at Stansted and there would inevitably be a public inquiry to examine any application in detail. However, at present the airport is not even authorised to exceed 25m passengers per year (even though runway capacity is higher) and granting of permission to allow full use of the existing runway is not likely to be easily forthcoming.
What is clear, however, is that surface access and air quality issues would be a major barrier to early development of an additional runway at Stansted. Similarly, legal challenges on competition grounds are likely to be pursued both by SSE and the aviation industry itself which would be very likely to prevent such development. Leading airlines (British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and bmi, for example) and TBI (operator of Luton Airport) have all made it clear that they would go down this route.
Which legal routes will SSE pursue if Stansted is in the White Paper?
SSE’s expert legal team has identified a number of avenues offering strong potential for legal challenge which can be pursued if the need arises, depending on the content of the White Paper:
1. A formal complaint could be made to the EU Commission that the UK government has failed to implement European laws on air quality and environmental impact assessments and will breach the law on pollutants (including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter and lead) at ground level. If the Commission believes that there is ground for the complaint, it will take it up with the UK government; and if not satisfied by the government’s response, the Commission has power to take the government to the European Court in Luxembourg.2. Complaints to the Competition Authorities in the UK and in the EU are also being actively considered. The ground of complaint would be that British Airports Authority has a dominant position in the operation of airports in the south east, and is abusing its market dominance. The abuse consists of cross-subsidising Stansted airport from income derived from Heathrow and, as a consequence of the abuse, airlines using Heathrow are being forced to subsidise their Stansted competitors and airports not operated by BAA (such as Luton) are being subjected to unfair competition by Stansted. If the regulatory challenges were unsuccessful, legal challenges could then be commenced under the 1988 Competition Act.
3. An application for judicial review is the third main area under examination. SSE has been successful in a previous application when the High Court decided that the government had acted irrationally in the consultation process. Depending on the content of the White Paper, there may be scope to demonstrate that the government has again acted irrationally in its selection of sites or in the process/methodology leading up to the government’s decisions.
4. WIDER MATTERS EXPECTED TO BE INCLUDED IN THE WHITE PAPER
Although the main focus of the White Paper will naturally be the siting of any new runways in the south east, it is important to remember that the White Paper is intended to set out a long term strategy for the development of UK aviation over the next 30 years and so it should be quite wide-ranging in scope and cover wider issues, including:
* Future development of airport capacity and basis for air travel across the whole of the UK
* Future taxation policy for air travel
* Tackling the environmental damage caused by air travel and making the industry pay for the damage it causes
* Developing a better regional balance of air travel to reduce the pressure on the south east
* Compensation and mitigation measures
* Scope for rail:air substitution
* Tackling BAA’s monopoly position in the UK airports market
It is important to emphasise that governments do not actually build runways. A new runway can only be built if it is within all aspects of UK and European law to do so and if it can be financed, which will ultimately be dependent upon proven commercial viability.