Where are we now?
At the time of the May 2010 General Election, all three of the main political parties ruled out any additional runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. However, almost immediately after the election, the aviation industry launched an intensive lobbying campaign to persuade the media, the public and politicians that the UK faced an airport capacity crisis and that the UK would fall behind its global competitors unless more capacity was provided, particularly in London/the South East.
The industry campaign was successful. In September 2012 the Government buckled under the pressure and announced that it would set up an independent Airports Commission chaired by Sir Howard Davies to examine afresh the whole issue of UK airport capacity. More particularly, the Commission was asked to identify, and recommend to the Government, options for maintaining the UK’s status as a global aviation hub.
SSE engaged fully with the Airports Commission from the outset and succeeded in keeping Stansted off the Commission’s shortlist of new runway options. The Commission published its final report in July 2015 which recommended that Heathrow should have a new (third) runway and the Government finally accepted that recommendation in October 2016. However, SSE’s job is far from complete. The Government, local politicians, the media and others need to be constantly reminded that that there is no justification for major expansion at Stansted.
In 2019 Stansted Airport handled 28.1 million passengers and, even without a second runway, it has the capacity to increase this by at least 20 million passengers per annum (‘mppa’). Stansted’s owners, the Manchester Airports Group (‘MAG’), have signalled their intention to expand Stansted to the maximum capacity of the existing single runway.
In February 2018, MAG submitted a planning application seeking an increase in the current 35mppa passenger cap to 43mppa. SSE believes this would be a stepping stone to 50mppa, or even more, which would be within the capability of the existing runway. SSE has vigorously opposed MAG’s 43mppa application from the outset, challenging both through the planning process and through the courts.
The local planning authority, Uttlesford District Council (‘UDC’) resolved to approve MAG’s 43mppa application in November 2018 but SSE continued to challenge this and in January 2020 UDC overturned its earlier decision and issued a refusal notice.
Legally, MAG had six months to decide whether to lodge an appeal against UDC’s refusal. True to form, MAG prolonged the uncertainty for as long as possible before announcing, on 10 July 2020, that it would be lodging an appeal and asking the Secretary of State to set up a Public Inquiry to enable its planning application to be reconsidered.
In October 2020 the Inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State announced that a Public Inquiry to consider the MAG planning application for 43mppa would start on 12 January 2021, despite pleas from SSE that it would be reckless to start the Inquiry in the midst of winter and in the midst of a pandemic.
The Inquiry lasted for 30 sitting days, closing on 12 March. All the hearings were by video link. SSE presented evidence on eleven topics whereas UDC presented evidence on just four topics. Moreover, UDC declared at the start of the Inquiry that MAG’s planning application should be granted subject to a few conditions. This meant that SSE had to battle not only against MAG but also UDC.
Unsurprisingly, the Panel of three Inspectors who presided over the Public Inquiry, decided that MAG’s planning application should be approved. The Inspectors’ ruling, announced on 26 May 2021, also included a costs award against UDC for “unreasonable behaviour” – an accusation which stemmed from their failure to defend their own refusal decision. UDC could be liable to pay an estimated £1.5 million in costs to MAG. Notably, the accusation of “unreasonable behaviour” was not levelled against SSE and there is no costs award against us.
Appeal options are currently being considered.
Meanwhile, Covid-19 has radically changed the landscape. In the 12 months to 30 April 2021 Stansted handled just 3 million passengers, compared to 28 million in 2019. The latest approval increases Stansted’s permitted throughput from 35 million passengers per annum to 43 million passengers per annum. As matters stand that looks like a very distant prospect.