Plane wrong: Bristol Airport expansion upheld in blow to campaigners

A High Court judge has dismissed the appeal of climate campaigners and ruled that Bristol Airport expansion can go ahead.  

Bristol Airport Action Network (BAAN) challenged the airport’s expansion plans in the High Court following their approval by planning inspectors at an inquiry in 2021. BAAN argued that the inspectors’ decision to discount climate change from their decision was legally wrong. 

However, in an announcement published today (January 31) Lord Justice Lane ruled that the inspectors’ decision was valid and that the expansion should proceed. 

Responses from campaigners 

The decision comes as a blow to BAAN who have campaigned to stop Bristol Airport expansion since plans for expansion were announced in 2018. There were tears amongst the members of BAAN and their supporters as news of the judge’s ruling broke to those waiting outside the courthouse. 

Hundreds gathered outside Bristol Civil Justice Centre, where the hearing was held in November, and cries of “shame” echoed out when the verdict was shared. 

Speaking for BAAN outside the courthouse, Steve Clarke said: ‘The Government has policies in place which are designed to encourage the growth of airports and the number of people wanting to fly. This shows a total disregard for the climate emergency we are in.

‘In addition, this case shows that no one is taking responsibility for the extra carbon emissions from the 2 million additional passengers because they will not have been taken into account at any stage of the process either locally or nationally. The Planning Inspectors who presided over the Inquiry stated that the responsibility lay with national Government however the Secretary of State has chosen not to consider the impact of the additional carbon; either at Bristol or other regional airport.

‘The end result of this decision is that the overwhelming voices of opposition of local people and their elected representatives have been ignored.  This is despite the chaos that will be caused locally through extra traffic congestion, noise and air pollution and the fact that the airport is already the biggest carbon emitter in the region.’

Following speeches from campaigners, protesters from XR Youth Bristol sat in front of the courthouse as fake blood was poured over their heads.

Three people kneel on the floor as fake blood is poured over their heads.

How did we get here? 

Thousands of local people signed petitions against the expansion and objected to the original planning application, outnumbering messages of support many times over. 

Bristol Airport’s planning application to expand from 10 million to 12 million passengers a year initially went before North Somerset Council in February 2020. Councillors voted against expansion, many giving as their reason that airport expansion is incompatible with efforts to tackle the climate crisis. 

Since then, further planning applications have been objected to, and the West of England Combined Authority and Bristol City Council joined North Somerset in formally objecting to expansion, although Bristol mayor Marvin Rees has always spoken in favour of the scheme. 

West of England metro mayor Dan Norris has repeatedly spoken against expansion, saying it would ‘drive a coach and horses’ through the region’s net zero plans. 

In July 2021, the decision was heard by a planning inquiry, with climate change being a major topic of debate. BAAN, supported by experts, argued that the emissions from the airport were substantially larger than the airport admitted and would have a deleterious effect on the UK’s ability to meet climate targets. 

The expansion is predicted to add one million tonnes of CO2 to Bristol’s carbon footprint each year, equivalent to two thirds of the current total for the city. 

Climate change was not the only concern raised at the inquiry. Groups representing local communities, including parish councils, spoke against the expansion on the grounds of noise pollution and road congestion. Claims by the airport that the expansion will create thousands of jobs were also questioned by the New Economics Foundation. 

Having heard the evidence, the inspectors, in their final ruling, determined that climate change is ‘neutral in the planning balance’ and therefore not a consideration in their decision, a ruling described at the time by Clarke as ‘unbelievable.’ 

‘Despite continual news of devastating floods, wildfires, storms and droughts, the inspectors basically decided to completely ignore the current climate chaos,’ said Clarke.  

It was on this point that BAAN initiated the High Court Challenge, crowdfunding £30,000 to pay for a barrister. The High Court hearing, which happened in Bristol upon request of BAAN, occurred between November 8 and 9 last year and was marked by vigil’s outside the courthouse. 

In his ruling, Lord Justice Lane agreed that the UK is not on track to meet its future carbon budgets

Today’s decision will have ripples beyond the expansion of Bristol Airport. Nineteen other airports across the UK have expansion plans, and anti-expansion campaigners were watching Bristol to see whether climate change concerns could be used to stop expansion elsewhere. 

What happens now? 

Steve Clarke spoke of the next steps. BAAN will pursue a further appeal in the court of appeal. 

‘So what happens now?’ Said Steve. He continued: ‘Well, we continue to struggle of course. We still believe with the support we see here today and the support we’ve received over four years that we can win this battle.’ 

There will be a rally on College Green, Central Bristol at midday on Saturday, February 4, to give local people the opportunity to express their views on the decision.

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