28th May 2021
These were the words used by the Panel of Planning Inspectors to describe the conduct of Uttlesford District Council (UDC) in their formal ruling, dated 26 May, which approved an increase in Stansted Airport’s planning cap from 35 million to 43 million passengers per annum (‘mppa’).
This followed a Public Inquiry which ran from 12 January to 12 March 2021, involving three main parties, namely UDC, Manchester Airports Group (MAG) and Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE). (Note that SSE has since been succeeded by Stansted Airport Watch (SAW), as set out in its press release of 17 April see https://stanstedairportwatch.com/news/press-releases/.)
Commenting on the outcome of the Public Inquiry, SAW Chairman Brian Ross, said: “We are, of course, disappointed but we are not at all surprised, bearing in mind that the Council’s planning officers made no real attempt to defend the decision of their own Planning Committee.”
Brian Ross added: “We will carefully review the Panel’s ruling and discuss with our legal advisers before deciding whether to seek leave to appeal.”
Stansted handled 28mppa in 2019 but the Covid-19 pandemic has decimated passenger numbers and in the past 12 months Stansted handled just 3mppa. Commentators take the view that it will take up to ten years before international air travel returns to pre-pandemic levels. Some believe that there has been a permanent loss of consumer confidence in air travel.
It is also widely believed that there will be a permanent reduction in business flights, with ‘Zoom’ meetings now firmly established as a safe, time-saving, cost-saving and effective alternative.
Aside from Covid-19, the aviation sector is under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon emissions. The Government is now legally committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and it has recently decided that all aviation emissions will in future be subject to five-yearly budgetary controls. This almost certainly means that air travel growth will need to be restricted.
Regardless of the future outlook for Stansted Airport there are questions to be answered in relation to UDC’s handling of the Inquiry. To quote from the Panel’s formal ruling: “The Council’s own appeal evidence was that the planning balance was favourable such that planning permission should be granted.”
It was, in fact, clear from the very start of the Public Inquiry that SSE was facing an uphill battle against the two other main parties, i.e. UDC as well as MAG.
This was despite UDC’s Planning Committee having last year voted unanimously to refuse MAG’s application for further expansion of Stansted. However, it was left to officers to defend this refusal decision at the Public Inquiry. For whatever reason they chose instead to argue that the airport planning application should be approved subject to a few conditions.
Brian Ross commented: “In deciding not to support the decision of the elected councillors, the approach taken by UDC officers was not so much “Yes Minister” as “No Minister”. We are still struggling to understand how this was allowed to happen.”
The Panel’s report makes repeated criticism of UDC’s conduct at the Inquiry before describing it as “unreasonable behaviour resulting in unnecessary or wasted expense” and making an award of costs against UDC in favour of MAG. This could leave local council taxpayers facing a bill of an estimated £1.5 million. Notably, there is no costs award against SAW/SSE, which is because we presented a consistent and coherent defence of UDC’s decision to refuse MAG’s application.
- In line with the proposed changes outlined in our press release of 17 April, Stop Stansted Expansion has now been succeeded by Stansted Airport Watch following unanimous approval at its Annual General Meeting on 26 May 2021.
- The Panel’s decision letters on the ‘Appeal’ and on ‘Costs’ are available from SAW upon request.
- In a public statement yesterday (27 May 2021) UDC Leader John Lodge announced that the Council will be writing to the Secretary of State asking for a review of the Panel’s decision on the grounds that the climate change aspects of the expansion have been ignored. SAW will, of course, offer every assistance to UDC in this regard.
FURTHER INFORMATION AND COMMENT