Stop Stansted Expansion accuses Uttlesford District Council of 'veil of secrecy' over airport
The new leader of Uttlesford District Council (UDC) has conceded his administration may be unable to overturn planning permission for 43 million passengers a year at Stansted Airport.
Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) seized control of the authority from the Conservatives in May 2's local elections and since then Cllr John Lodge and his team have been unpicking the airport growth approval process.
In November last year, the UDC planning committee chairman's casting vote resulted in the green light for owner Manchester Airports Group to increase capacity at Stansted by 8m passengers a year, provided mitigation conditions were agreed. The terminal has permission for 35m a year and currently handles around 28m.
Cllr Lodge said: "Anyone who has been following the airport expansion process will know that Residents for Uttlesford is deeply unhappy with how the previous Conservative administration handled the planning approval, as are other parties and many residents. Any expansion needs to be balanced by the airport's responsibilities to the environment, local communities and transport infrastructure.
"By hurrying through the approval right before the local election, we believe that the Tories got it wrong. What they negotiated from the airport was barely adequate – in effect, they favoured big business over corporate responsibility. We need to find a way to get a better deal for local communities.
"Just before the election we and other parties at UDC managed to use a technicality to delay the issuing of the final approval notice. While it doesn't change the fact that the Conservatives approved the expansion, it buys the new council a little time."
Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE) is piling on the pressure to quash the permission but Cllr Lodge admitted: "We can't just reverse the previous council's decision because we're unhappy with it. Planning is a semi-judicial process.
"During the last two weeks, I, councillors and officers have worked hard with UDC's own legal team and an independent QC to find a way forward. As part of this process, it is important to note that I have spoken at length with SSE a number of times to understand where they think the flaws were in how the Conservatives undertook the approval."
Cllr Lodge concluded: "If the independent QC's advice proves that UDC has no legal basis to reverse the decision, then, disappointingly, the council will be forced to issue the final approval notice. That then gives SSE the opportunity to launch a judicial review against the previous Conservative administration's decision. Irrespective of any outcome, we remain committed to finding a way to strike a fairer deal with the airport."
SSE chairman Peter Sanders remains unconvinced. He has written to UDC chief executive Dawn French, alleging a "veil of secrecy" around the council's handling of the issue over the past two months and accusing officers of refusing to discuss new evidence.
Instead, he said, officers have held three meetings with councillors behind closed doors for which no minutes or other formal records are publicly available. In addition, an extraordinary meeting of the council that was due to be held in public on June 3 has been postponed until June 28 pending further legal advice.
Mr Sanders told Ms French: "Once again, instead of resisting proposals from elected UDC members and others for [the airport planning application] to be referred back to the planning committee for further consideration, I urge you to make a clear recommendation for that referral to be made forthwith."
* On May 2, the Tories retained just four of their 24 seats on Uttlesford District Council – proportionately, the largest loss by the ruling party of any district council in the country – as R4U won 26, up 16. There are also seven Lib Dems and two Independents.