Stop Stansted Expansion chairman Peter Sanders reflects on two decades of campaigning against airport expansion
After two decades of campaigning, 82-year-old Peter Sanders is stepping down as Stop Stansted Expansion chairman as the organisation begins a new era with a fresh name – Stansted Airport Watch.
He took the helm in 2004, two years after helping to found SSE, and has been a resident of the area for 40 years: firstly in Stansted, then Widdington and now Saffron Walden.
Born in the East End of London in 1938, Peter earned a place at the University of Oxford, where he took a degree in classics followed by a doctorate in African history.
He began his career in 1961, joining the Diplomatic Service, where he served in Lesotho and Basutoland, overseeing pre-independence elections in the mid-1960s. On his return to the UK, he joined the Race Relations Board, subsequently the Commission for Racial Equality, and was its chief executive for many years and was awarded the CBE.
After retiring in 1993, Peter went on to write several books on African history, as well as two local history books: The Simple Annals: The History of an Essex and East End Family and On the Beaten Track: A History of Stansted Mountfitchet.
He became treasurer of the United Nations Association in the UK, a post he held until 2003. His wife died a number of years ago. His favourite pastime is his much-loved allotment in Stansted...
In May, I shall be standing down as chairman of SSE (Stop Stansted Expansion) having held that post for 17 years. At the same time, if all goes according to plan, the baton will pass from SSE to Stansted Airport Watch (SAW).
SSE was founded in 2002 in response to Government proposals which shocked the local community by setting out options for expanding Stansted with up to three additional runways.
Up to that point the Government had adhered to the unequivocal declaration made in 1985 that there was no case for the provision of even one additional runway at Stansted.
Suddenly, in response to the growth of low-cost airlines, it had brushed aside that declaration and was prepared to consider allowing Stansted to become twice as big as Heathrow.
This was widely regarded as a gross breach of faith – many people had bought houses locally on the strength of the Government's assurance. It was also regarded as a dire threat to a wide area of unspoilt countryside.
A previous planning inspector had described the prospect of a second Stansted runway as an invading monster. SSE submitted a comprehensive, well-argued response to the Government's proposals, Stansted: The Case against Irresponsible Growth, and in a referendum organised by Uttlesford District Council, 89% had voted against a second runway. But it was all to no avail.
In its White Paper of 2003 the Government declared its support for an extra runway at Stansted, to be open by 2012 at the latest.
BAA, the then owner of Stansted Airport, set about preparing for construction of the second runway. This included the purchase of some 270 local homes, and in 2008 BAA submitted its planning application for the new runway.
Throughout these proceedings, any arguments about the growing impact of aviation on climate change were dismissed. They were the concern of central government, it was said, not a local planning inquiry. But outside the legislative framework, these same arguments were gaining more momentum.
SSE had been working with politicians from all parties behind the scenes for many years in Whitehall, Westminster and at party conferences, and had secured verbal assurances that a change of Government would result in a change of policy and the withdrawal of support for a second Stansted runway.
These assurances were honoured when, in 2010, one of the first acts of the newly-formed coalition Government was to withdraw its support for a second Stansted runway. BAA then had no choice but to abandon its planning application and SSE duly celebrated.
It was, of course, too good to last for very long.
Confronted by the powerful aviation industry lobby, the Government set up the Airports Commission to examine whether or not any more runways were needed in the South East and, if so, where they should be.
In a detailed submission to the Airports Commission, Manchester Airports Group (MAG), which had purchased Stansted from BAA in 2013, revived plans to make Stansted a four-runway airport, twice as big as Heathrow and bigger than any other airport in Europe.
SSE spared no effort in preparing its evidence to counter MAG's proposals and our efforts were spectacularly rewarded when the Airports Commission did not even short-list Stansted for a second runway.
The commission eventually concluded that one new runway was needed in the South East and that it should be at Heathrow. If, at a later date, in the 2040s, another runway was needed, Stansted could be one of the options. The Government accepted these recommendations.
So what have we achieved?
Although Stansted has expanded considerably over the years, it continues to be a single-runway airport. It is currently limited by planning conditions to 35 million passengers per annum and MAG wants this increased to 43 million. This was the issue at stake in the recent public inquiry and we now await the decision of the planning inspectors.
But regardless of the outcome, the impact of Covid-19 is such that it will take many years for Stansted to return even to its pre-pandemic (2019) throughput of 28 million passengers. In the past 12 months Stansted has handled just three million passengers.
When I became chairman of SSE in 2004, many, perhaps most, people considered that a second Stansted runway was inevitable. The Government had identified this as its first priority for increasing London's airport capacity.
SSE cannot claim all the credit for the Government's change of mind, obviously, but our campaigning has been well-informed, professional and intensive, from the opening mass meeting in the former Mountfitchet High School through fund-raising events, sales of calendars, donations and the planting of the SSE wood in Broxted, exactly where the second runway was due to be constructed.
In spite of the disparity in financial resources we have been more than a match for BAA and MAG.
I take this opportunity once again to thank our superb team of local experts, active campaigners and thousands of supporters.
Over the years we have been encouraged by the support of parish, town and district councillors, our local MPs and also our patron, Terry Waite.
In our early years there were those who told us that, confronted by the big guns of BAA and the Government, we did not stand a chance, that we were wasting our time and effort. Some even claimed that the second runway had already been constructed and was concealed under a thick covering of turf! We can claim to have proved them all wrong.
Looking to the future, there may not be any immediate threat of a second runway, but we must remain on our guard and there is much to do to contain the negative impacts of Stansted Airport.
It has been a privilege and a pleasure to lead SSE over this period, and I shall continue to take a close interest when the baton passes from SSE to Stansted Airport Watch (SAW), assuming our members approve this change at the forthcoming AGM.