The destructive scheme to expand Bristol Airport has been given the green light by inspectors.
Following a public inquiry from July to October last year, inspectors yesterday (February 2) returned a long-awaited verdict in favour of the airport’s appeal against an earlier decision by North Somerset Council to deny planning permission.
The expansion raises Bristol Airport’s passenger cap from 10 million per year to 12 million, allows thousands of extra flights, including night flights, and permits expansion of the terminal building and a new multi-storey car park on Green Belt land. .
Since its announcement in 2018, the expansion plan has been resisted by local residents and campaign groups, culminating in the decision by North Somerset Council to refuse planning permission in January 2020.
Large majorities of people have objected across two public consultations on the issue and Bristol CIty Council, Bath and North East Somerset Council and the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) all objected to the plans.
After the result was announced, campaign group Bristol Airport Action Network tweeted: ‘Naturally we are all outraged by this news & will be posting an official response once the full decision has been analysed. Love to all who opposed this unwanted appeal. We will not give up!’
Meanwhile, WECA mayor Dan Norris tweeted: ‘Deeply dismayed by decision on Bristol Airport. Govt’s lack of policy on UK airport expansion resulted in inspectors ignoring voices of local people & resolution of the West of England Combined Authority’
The public inquiry, which lasted 36 days last year, saw solicitors for the airport argue their case before three government-appointed planning inspectors. Against them were an array of opponents including North Somerset Council, the local Parish Council association, and grassroots campaign groups like Bristol Airport Action Network.
Key issues of contention were climate change, noise, air pollution, transport and highways, Green Belt development and socio-economic benefits.
On climate change. Bristol Airport claims that it will be carbon neutral by 2025. However, this target does not include emissions from planes, which account for the vast majority of the airport’s emissions.
Government policy on airport expansion is currently largely determined by the Making Best Use strategy, whereby existing airports should be encouraged to develop to absorb increasing demand for flights, rather than building new airports or new runways.
Campaigners at the inquiry had hoped the inspectors would balance this against policy recommendations by the Climate Change Committee, the government’s statutory advisors on climate change, that the UK should pursue no net airport expansion and should actively seek to reduce demand for flights.
Another key battle-ground was the predicted socio-economic benefits of the expansion. During the inquiry, Bristol Airport, which is owned by the Canada-based Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund, repeatedly claimed that expansion was necessary to meet increasing demand for flights and to support regional economic growth.
Alex Chapman, a researcher at the New Economics Foundation and an expert witness called at the inquiry said of Bristol Airport’s analysis that it was ‘so riddled with flaws, omissions, and contradictions, that it should be disregarded.’ He pointed out that expansion could result in as few as 150 additional jobs across the region whilst outbound tourism would result in a net loss of money overseas.
Ultimately, however, the inspectors sided with the airport, saying in their final decision report: ‘In light of national, regional and local policy there is a planning policy imperative to support airport growth in economic terms.’
This is a common refrain in the inspectors’ decision. National policy is geared towards airport expansion and development, citing economic benefits and job creation, as well as more recently Covid recovery.
The decision of the planning inspectors has dealt a blow to campaigners, politicians and residents across the South West. The next stage of resistance to the airport is already underway, however, with a rally called by Bristol Airport Action Network for 12pm on Saturday, February 12 at College Green.