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Uttlesford District Council defies experts and grounds Stansted Airport expansion

Uttlesford District Council has grounded Stansted Airport’s expansion plans after two days of heated debate and deliberations.

At an extraordinary meeting of the council's planning committee in Saffron Walden on Friday (Jan 24), councillors defied their own officers' and independent legal advice to reject a £35m mitigation package which would have rubber-stamped an application by Stansted owner Manchester Airports Group (MAG) to raise the Essex hub's passenger capacity from 35 million a year to 43m.

The council has already spent more than £100,000 on legal advice to shore up its position. Uttlesford residents now face further substantial bills from barristers as MAG contemplates a costly appeal.

Records tumble at Stansted Airport. (27529635)
Records tumble at Stansted Airport. (27529635)

After UDC's previous, Conservative administration approved the plans in November 2018 on the planning committee chairman's casting vote, opposition parties worked together to block confirmation of the conditions. After Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) routed the Tories at last May’s local elections, MAG's application was returned to the committee for further scrutiny.

Over two days last Thursday and Friday (Jan 23-24), members considered hours of evidence from those who support MAG’s growth and those like Stop Stansted Expansion who oppose it.

The committee was tasked with deciding two key points: whether the Section 106 agreement – a £35m package of infrastructure and community benefits – accompanying the planning application was appropriate and if there had been any significant change in circumstances since MAG's scheme was approved in 2018.

The airport had pledged to achieve the rise in passenger numbers without increasing its permitted number of flights from the 274,000-a-year limit approved in 2008. It also promised to reduce the noise footprint by 2028 to a level 15% smaller than that sanctioned in 2008.

At the same time, the airport agreed that cargo flights should be reduced from the maximum now of 20,500 to 16,000 annually and pledged not to lobby for more night flights.

But those assurances and the £35m spending package did not convince the committee. After a session on Friday which began at 11am and ended around 6pm, ten members voted to refuse to release the permission, citing concerns about noise, air quality and climate change. Two councillors – R4U duo Neil Reeve (Broad Oak and The Hallingburys) and Maggie Sutton (Takeley), who are also members of SSE – abstained.

A spokesperson for Stansted Airport said: “From the outset, we have listened to local communities to put forward an application that delivers the benefits of growth and a comprehensive package of mitigation measures to benefit local communities.

“We are naturally disappointed that the planning committee has chosen to consciously ignore the recommendations of not only its own officers but also the additional advice it commissioned, at significant cost to the taxpayer, from independent technical experts and lawyers. The conclusions of this advice were clear that there should be no impediment to granting approval.

“We will now carefully consider the comments made by the planning committee before deciding our next steps.”

Any appeal by MAG would be made to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Uttlesford’s grip on planning policy is already in the spotlight this month after two Government inspectors told the council its development strategy for thousands of new homes, more than a decade in the making, was not fit for purpose.

The UDC planning committee was:

Cllr Sandi Merifield, chair (R4U, Felsted & Stebbing)

Cllr Mark Lemon, vice-chair (Con, Hatfield Heath)

Cllr Geoff Bagnall (R4U, Takeley)

Cllr Paul Fairhurst(Green, Saffron Walden Shire)

Cllr Richard Freeman (R4U, Saffron Walden Castle)

Cllr Garry LeCount (R4U, Elsenham & Henham)

Cllr Janice Loughlin (Lib Dem, Stort Valley)

Cllr Richard Pavitt (Ind, Littlebury Chesterford & Wendens Loft)

Cllr Neil Reeve (R4U, Broad Oak & The Hallingburys)

Cllr Geoffrey Sell (Lib Dem, Stansted North)

Cllr Alan Storah (R4U, The Sampfords)

Cllr Maggie Sutton (R4U, Takeley)

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