In January 2020, councillors from Uttlesford District Council, a small district on the border of Hertfordshire and Essex, met to discuss the expansion of Stansted Airport.
The airport, the UK’s fourth-busiest, had submitted plans to allow an extra 8 million customers to pass through its doors each year, making its total capacity 43 million.
In a move that surprised everybody, UDC councillors voted unanimously against the proposal. Airport expansions historically go through on the nod – no one pays much attention. But this was different. Stansted Airport Watch (SAW, formerly Stop Stansted Expansion, or SSE) had been campaigning against the expansion for years, raising awareness about what this might mean for local residents overflown by planes, and how airport greenhouse gas emissions contribute to the climate crisis.
The decision was a victory for climate campaigners. Was this, finally, the turning point, where planning applications would put environmental considerations first?
"Was this, finally, the turning point, where planning applications would put environmental considerations first?"
A year later there was a public inquiry, prompted by the inevitable appeal from the airport’s owners, Manchester Airports Group (MAG). Cited at the public inquiry was the standard list of what the airport is doing to reduce its carbon emissions: electrifying ground transport, encouraging people to arrive by train, reducing single-use plastic. In any case, aeroplanes will all be running on hydrogen by 2050 so what’s the problem?
In its statement, the Planning Inspectorate said that the “limited degree of harm arising in respect of air quality and carbon emissions” was “far outweighed by the benefits of the proposal.” The deal was sealed.
Uttlesford District Council went to the High Court to apply for a Judicial Review against the Planning Inspectorate’s decision, but the application was refused. They had gone from being hailed as heroes by climate campaigners across the country to being the latest in a long line of local councils who had been defeated by Goliath. In October 2021, UDC voted not to appeal this latest refusal. The end of the road had been reached.
Why did it fail? Was it incompetence at the council? Surprise that their initial vote to refuse expansion had passed? Did they not fight hard enough? Was it that the airport is simply too large and powerful to be fought? Was it the inevitable narrative that it’s nice to consider the environment but actually it's money that talks?
"Was the airport simply too large and powerful to be fought?"
In the end, this is about more than just Stansted. Yes, expansion will be most keenly felt by those residents under the flight path whose lives are blighted by noise and pollution. They are now battling the airport’s plans to increase the number of night flights – arguably much harder now that expansion has been approved.
But it’s also about Southampton, Leeds Bradford, Manchester, Bristol, Luton and ultimately Heathrow and Gatwick. Expand one airport and you make it more difficult to refuse expansion for any of them. It’s about our culture of ever-increasing growth on a finite planet and the constant struggle of those with the big bucks vs those who are trying to make their communities, and the world, a better place to live.
"This is about more than just Stansted. Expand one airport and you make it more difficult to refuse expansion for any of them."
It is also about justice: airport expansion causes actual harm to residents through noise and pollution, yet it’s the residents themselves who fork out for this privilege: MAG is a holding company 65% owned by Greater Manchester councils – funded by taxpayers. The other 35% (with half the voting rights) is an investment fund registered in the Cayman Islands. A bitter sting in the tale is that the cash-poor UDC will now have to pay MAG’s legal costs.