Stansted Airport appeal inquiry: Stop Stansted Expansion 'led Uttlesford council's planning committee over a cliff'
Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE) has been accused of acting as ‘Pied Piper’ and leading Uttlesford District Council over a cliff as the airport planning appeal got under way yesterday (Tues).
Stansted owner Manchester Airports Group launched its battle to win planning permission for growth from 35 million passengers a year to 43m with a scathing attack on SSE vice-chairman Brian Ross.
The public inquiry at the airport’s Radisson Blu hotel before three inspectors is being streamed live online because of the coronavirus crisis.
MAG lawyer Thomas Hill QC told the panel UDC’s determination of the planning application was “a very sorry tale”.
MAG’s expansion bid 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.
But 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 the 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.
Mr Hill said: “Mr Ross is the motive force behind SSE, who has lost no opportunity to press SSE’s case on UDC’s members, many of whom are also long-standing members and supporters of SSE.
“Whilst it is, of course, entirely legitimate for local objectors to a particular development to band together to seek to achieve their end, on this occasion the levels of intervention have certainly reached new levels in Stansted Airport’s experience, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mr Ross and SSE have played the role of Pied Piper in relation to Stansted’s application and have led UDC’s planning committee over the metaphorical cliff.”
This week it was clear there is now a chasm between the council and the campaigners.
As the inquiry began, SSE issued a statement slamming UDC: “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 forthcoming 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.”
Following a meeting of district councillors behind closed doors last Thursday, called by a cross-party group to challenge UDC’s appeal strategy, Liberal Democrat opposition leader Cllr Alan Dean went further.
“Last Thursday’s five-hour emergency council meeting was a disgrace. By 11pm I was little wiser about why the council is pursuing a line of capitulation at this week’s airport planning inquiry. Of 16 questions sent to the cabinet, not one answer made any sense.
“The council should be fighting this appeal in line with the planning committee’s decision 12 months ago – to refuse the application and to defeat this week’s appeal. The Liberal Democrats are at one with SSE, whose aim is the same as the council’s own planning committee.”
Stansted’s lawyer underlined the split and warned of the consequences: “UDC’s case has now contracted to the extent that it accepts that the appeal should be allowed and planning permission granted. Its focus is now clearly upon the structure and content of any accompanying planning conditions.
“By contrast, SSE is so deeply entrenched in its opposition to growth at Stansted that it has fought tooth and nail for this inquiry and seems determined to have its day in court.
“However, its case is predicated throughout upon positions which represent direct opposition to – or wilful misreading of – Government policy.
"Stansted Airport considers the behaviour of UDC and SSE to be unreasonable and warns now that when the evidence is complete it will be seeking compensation for any wasted costs which it has been obliged to bear in prosecuting this appeal.”
The appeal is timetabled to last until April but is expected to conclude more quickly, not least because SSE is submitting written evidence rather than witnesses.