Local Decision With Global Consequences: Bristol Airport Inquiry Begins

A strong smell of sun cream hovers outside Weston super mare town hall. 

On Monday the Met office issued an extreme heat warning for the very first time in its history as temperatures in the south west are predicted to reach as high as 33 degrees. 

The sun is already bearing down heavily at 9:00 on Tuesday morning as around two dozen people gather, some wearing animal headdresses, others carrying banners and flags, several camera crews hovering expectedly around the edges. 

This is the first day of the public inquiry into Bristol Airport expansion – the first of 40 days of deliberation and debate to decide on what has been slated as the most important climate decision facing our region.

The crowd, which grows throughout the morning, has been mustered by XR groups from Bristol and Weston-Super-Mare to take part in three days of protest and outreach to mark the beginning of the inquiry, which will pit the airport against North Somerset Council, who, in February 2020, voted to refuse planning permission for the expansion.  

There is no road blocking, but other XR staples abound, including a die-in, and a procession by the Red Rebel Brigade. Luke Jerram’s inflatable globe art piece Gaia is displayed on the grass outside the town hall.

Providing novelty is the presence of two members of XR Bristol on the roof of the town hall. According to those on the ground, they arrived at 4:30 to scale the 40 foot-high building. The police seem unbothered. 

Two people dressed as pilots harnessed on the roof of Weston-super-mare town hall.
Rebels from XR Bristol on top of Weston-Super-Mare town hall. Image: James Ward.

Speaking to TBA from the rooftop, one of the protesters explained their actions are to ‘highlight that the owners of Bristol Airport are dragging North Somerset Council through a legal process so that they can emit an extra one million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. We think that’s immoral.’

Bristol Airport is owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP), a Canadian pension provider with investments around the world, including several other airports in the UK. 

The rooftop Rebel continued, ‘The airport, they’re shameless…and I feel as if there’s a bit of a David and Goliath battle going on between [the airport and] NSC – who made a decision that was supported by 84% of people who responded to the original consultation.’

‘We’re prepared to go to great lengths to make sure people are watching what’s happening here, that this doesn’t pass under the radar.’

Indeed, the eyes of the world will be watching this inquiry: members of the OTPP have previously expressed their opposition to the airport expansion in an open letter, and will perhaps be following the inquiry from across the Atlantic.

In response to that open letter, OTPP said ‘We believe the expansion of Bristol Airport is consistent with that mission and can create sustainable value for our members and Bristol Airport’s stakeholders, including employees, customers, and local communities.’

Temperatures in Weston-Super-Mare seem balmy in comparison to the 47 degree heat dome recently experienced by British Columbia, Canada, a phenomenon which led to forest fires annihilating entire towns

Around 9:30 a mannequin dressed to look like Bristol Airport CEO David Lees, attached to a mock parachute bearing the slogan “Stop Airport Expansion”, was unveiled on the roof, and hung down across the front of the town hall to cheers from those below. 

The inquiry itself officially began at 10:00 with all parties ironing out the running order before beginning their opening statements. 

Represented in this were Bristol Airport Action Network (BAAN), a campaign group who will call experts to give evidence to the inquiry on the climate aspects of airport expansion against the airport’s claims to be working towards carbon neutrality by 2025. 

Speaking for BAAN, spokesperson Richard Baxter said:

‘It’s got to the point where they [the inquiry] cannot ignore [the climate issues]. It would just be so wrong to dismiss it as a minor part of the application. They’ve got the opportunity to play a major role here and send a signal to the aviation industry.’ 

In this, BAAN is supported by the Climate Change Committee, the government’s statutory advisors on climate change, who argue for a policy of no net airport expansion across the UK, meaning that any expansion of one airport limits the capacity of any other airport to expand. 

With the airport’s legal representative having already attempted to dismiss the climate aspects of the expansion in his opening statement, it is clear that this is going to be a hotly contested issue. 

As people around the globe already suffer from the effects of extreme heat, many might ask how much longer we can afford to keep having this debate. 

Pointing to the many examples of extreme heating observable around the world today, one of the protesters said from the town hall roof: ‘I think frankly there are so many awful things happening in the world that people can feel overwhelmed, but this is our airport and this is our responsibility.’

Red Rebels dressed in red shawls stand in a circle. An large inflatable earth can be seen behind them.
Members of the XR Red Rebel Brigade process outside Weston-Super-Mare town hall. Image: James Ward.
A dozen people lie on the floor pretending to be dead in protest.
A die-in outside Weston-Super-Mare town hall Tuesday morning. Image: James Ward.
A woman releases a red flare in front of an inflateable earth.
A protester releases a flare over Luke Jerram’s Gaia. Image: James Ward.

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