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Stansted Airport planning appeal: Inquiry inspectors press ahead despite campaigners concerns

Stansted Airport's planning appeal begins online today (Tuesday, January 12) after inquiry inspectors rejected calls for a three-month deferral because of the coronavirus crisis.

A panel of three experts – Michael Boniface, Gareth Jones and Nick Palmer – had expected to start the hearing face to face with Stansted owner Manchester Airports Group (MAG) making the case for passenger growthand planning authority Uttlesford District Council (UDC) and Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE) arguing that refusal of MAG's application on environmental and infrastructure grounds should stand.

But the entire hearing at the airport's Radisson Blu hotel is now being held online and streamed live, despite SSE concerns. UDC had already announced it would be making its representations remotely.

Stop Stansted Expansion chairman Peter Sanders. (43910466)
Stop Stansted Expansion chairman Peter Sanders. (43910466)

Previously, SSE chairman Peter Sanders said: "We have a powerful case to argue, based on strong evidence, and it is important to the community that these airport expansion proposals are properly challenged.

"We are not persuaded that video hearings can provide the level of public accessibility and transparency that a controversial public inquiry of this type needs to have."

However, the inspectors issued a note last Thursday (January 7) rebutting those concerns and reiterating the inquiry should go ahead.

Stansted, which has permission for 35 million passengers a year, saw its passenger throughput peak at 28m in 2018 – in 2020, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it handled just 7m.
Stansted, which has permission for 35 million passengers a year, saw its passenger throughput peak at 28m in 2018 – in 2020, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it handled just 7m.

They said: "It is unclear why SSE expect the cross-examination process would lose integrity, and it is expected that participants will behave in accordance with their professional codes of conduct, where applicable, and in line with their duty to assist the inquiry. Witnesses will be visible to all parties throughout their evidence.

"The pandemic has led to difficulties for everyone, but every effort must be made to maintain an effective appeals system. There can be no guarantee that the situation will have materially improved by March, noting that the last scheduled sitting day is currently April 1, 2021."

SSE's decision to submit documentation comes with a warning from the inspectors: "SSE should be aware that untested written evidence will not attract the same weight as that presented to the inquiry and tested through cross-examination."

The appeal comes more than two years after MAG's planning application to UDC to increase the current 35-million-a-year cap on passenger numbers to 43m was approved in November 2018 by the council's planning committee – on the chairman's casting vote – when the Conservatives were in charge of the authority.

Stansted Airport terminal (43910473)
Stansted Airport terminal (43910473)

In June 2019, after the Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) party had won control of the council in the previous month's local elections, members voted to return the application to its planning committee.

Their decision flew in the face of a recommendation from the council's own planning officers and independent legal counsel – and councillors again disregarded expert advice in January 2020 by rejecting the growth application, triggering MAG's appeal.

The inquiry is timetabled to sit until April, but SSE's reliance on written evidence is expected to curtail its duration. It will sit from Tuesday to Friday each week, starting at 10am.

The full programme is at www.hwa.uk.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Inquiry-programme-23-12-20-.pdf. You can follow proceedings online via live streaming at http://stream-uk.venue-av.com/e/sai/live_stream. There is also a catch-up facility.

What Stop Stansted Expansion had to say on the eve of the inquiry

"SSE considers it entirely irrational, and potentially dangerous, for the Government’s Planning Inspectorate to insist that the public inquiry must start at the height of a pandemic.

"Stansted already has permission for 35 million passengers and its passenger throughput peaked at 28 million in 2018, with passenger numbers in decline since mid-2019, long before the pandemic. In 2020, Stansted handled just 7 million passengers and has forecast that it will take years to return to pre-pandemic levels. Plainly, there is no urgency to increase the current planning cap.

"If approved, Stansted would be permitted to expand to a similar size and scale to Gatwick, which is why SSE has fought these expansion proposals, tooth and nail, since they were first announced in June 2017 by MAG.

"At that time MAG fully expected UDC to approve its proposals within three months. However, UDC officials and MAG underestimated the strength of local opposition, spearheaded by SSE. Three months has become three years and there is now, finally, an opportunity for the local community to make a stand.

"We all have a moral obligation to call a halt to ever-increasing aviation emissions, for the sake of future generations as well as for the sake of all other species with whom we share this planet, and SSE will do its utmost to fight for these local and wider environmental principles at the inquiry.

"SSE cannot, however, hide its disappointment that UDC officials have now, behind the scenes, withdrawn most of their objections to MAG’s expansion plans for Stansted, subject to a few hollow conditions."

SSE chairman Peter Sanders said: “In view of the timing of this public inquiry, at the height of a pandemic, SSE is participating under duress, but we have powerful, well-researched evidence to put before the inquiry and we will do just that, regardless of UDC’s position and regardless of the difficulties."

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