Thousands of people in Bristol and the West region will feel profoundly disillusioned by the outcome of the Bristol Airport appeal, where the Public Inquiry ruled in favour of expansion . Many opposed to the reckless expansion plan and would support a sustainable operation serving the reasonable business and leisure needs of the region (amounting to about 5 million passengers per annum). The Planning Inspectors have instead given the Canadian owners virtually everything on their carbon-fuelled shopping list.
The Inquiry decision is largely based on legislation judged by the Government’s Climate Change Committee as no longer fit for purpose. Yet, despite commitments to reduce carbon emissions at the recent COP 26 climate conference, the Government still supports the growth of aviation and airports . The arcane planning process, framed in 1990, allowed the Planning Inspectors to conjure with contested projections leading to repetitious assertions that Airport expansion ‘will be neutral in the planning balance’ . The conclusions of the Inquiry are not neutral: they are a denial of the realities of climate change and a contemptuous dismissal of the democratic process.
In refusing to ‘call-in’ the Appeal, the Secretary of State effectively confirmed that expansion was a matter for the local authority, in line with the Government’s levelling up policy, which is committed to the ‘highest levels’ of devolved powers and decision making. However the policy paper was coincidentally published on the same day at the Inspectors report (2nd Feb 2022), so too late for the appeal process. 
The Inspectors did, however, acknowledge the substantial level of opposition and the strength of objections to expansion at local, regional, national and international level: ‘we realise that our decision will come as a major disappointment to those people who spoke passionately in opposition to the proposal. In coming to our decision, the protests of individuals, communities, Members of Parliament, action groups, technical experts and others were fully heard and carefully considered by the Panel’ [Appeal Decision,§560].
In these few words, the Inquiry comprehensively dismisses the considered positions of local MPs, the views of the major town councils, the parish councils, the community organisations and other representative groups and individuals who objected that Airport expansion. It offers not a shred of evidence of ways in which democratic views were ‘carefully considered’ by the Panel, nor how the widespread opposition to expansion made any impact of the process and outcome of the Appeal .
North Somerset Council fielded a team of specialist consultants led by a senior QC which, says leader Donald Davies,‘mounted a robust defence of the Council’s position. It’s extremely disappointing that the inspectors have overturned our decision … This simply flies in the face of local democracy and disregards the views of the local communities who fought equally hard to resist the expansion’.
The Inquiry’s contemptuous dismissal of democratic decisions and public opinion, sought and expressed through many expensive public consultations and witness statements, fuels the belief that democratic consultation has become a costly charade.
Climate Change and Health
The Inquiry report undermines the vision for a green future for Bristol and the West region and a body blow to councils and communities who developing imaginative initiatives to tackle the climate emergency and achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.
Airport expansion will impact health across the region with increased aviation emissions. Noise, especially from more night flights, will make a further impact on mental and physical health. There will be greater traffic congestion and pollution through Bristol and along the A38 (sucked in from an area bounded by Pembroke, Birmingham, Swindon and Penzance). Further environmental damage to the Green Belt will be caused by increased demand for on-site and illegal off-site parking, compounded by poor access to the site and minimal public transport.
It’s not yet clear whether the Airport will be awarded costs against North Somerset, whose resources are already stretched to breaking point by its social responsibilities, or whether the Council will seek a judicial review. As a first step SBAEx calls on Bristol Airport to lift this vindictive financial threat to every household in North Somerset that pays council tax.
The Airport and its Canadian owners, the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, must then be persuaded to recognise the social and geographical limitations of the site, which cannot tolerate growth without substantial damage to human health and the environment. They must recognise the need to reduce passenger throughput until sustainable road and aviation transport becomes a reality. They should abolish all night flights, work towards a substantial reduction in road traffic and improved public transport, and stop further invasion of the Green Belt. Such long-term thinking and investment would provide immediate and lasting benefits to the region and its communities as well as contributing to national and global carbon reduction.
The compelling arguments against Airport expansion have been carefully articulated at the Inquiry and by independent bodies such as the New Economics Foundation . These hold good despite the Inquiry’s assertions: it can only be a short time before this government (or the next) takes the inevitable decision curb carbon emissions from aviation to meet its COP commitments. The alternative is unthinkable. Either way, the appeal decision is a hollow victory for the Airport.
SBAEx and other campaign and community groups are meanwhile working to ensure that the Inquiry outcome is no more than a temporary set back to the region’s imaginative planning for a carbon-free sustainable future. Bristol and the region cannot be sacrificed on the altar of commercial greed.
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Notes and Further information
Picture credit: Imperial War Museum
The Planning Inspectorate (Feb 2020) Appeal Decision APP/D0121/W/20/3259234
Grant Shapps (Nov 2021) ‘General Aviation: Department of Transport’s Priorities and Governance’ https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1034284/general-aviation-dft-priorities-and-governance.pdf)
See Alethea Warrington (Feb 2022)
See SBAEx ‘How Much Will Public Opinion Count?’
Reports available from The New Economics Foundation