Photos: Valentin Saiz
It felt like match night as I sat in a crammed room at the Brewhouse pub in Weston Super Mare. Punters were sinking pints, yelling loudly, shaking their fists, and there was a furore of celebration when their side won. Yet it wasn’t the football on the screen, but a live streaming of a North Somerset Council Planning Committee meeting.
The assembled were celebrating that, against the odds, North Somerset Councillors voted to reject proposals to expand Bristol Airport by 17-7 with one abstention. Monday night’s decision marks a landmark moment in the furious battle that has been fought since expansion proposals were announced in December 2018, with vociferous arguments on both sides.
What happened on the night?
After extensive briefings, endless documents and a planning officer’s recommendation to the tune of 235 pages – the enormity of the decision was clear. Many councillors described it as the most important decision faced by the council.
Independent Councillor for Wrington Steve Hogg has heard all too often from his parishioners grievances against the airport. Wrington residents experience daily congestion from the airport and noise from underneath the flight path.
One after the other, Councillors expressed their concerns on behalf of locals – noise, disturbances to sleep, air quality, health – the list went on. “Our duty to the parishioners and approving the planning application is mutually exclusive,” said Councillor Hogg. Allowing the expansion would irrevocably damage the trust and future relationship between parishioners and councillors, Hogg added.
The airport had set out a number of proposals to mitigate some of the airport’s impact on local residents. For example, recommending that quieter bio-fuel and electric aircraft be introduced to reduce environmental impact. On the concerns over congestion, a public transport scheme had been proposed.
The planning officers evaluation which was given to Councillors stated that these plans were feasible and would indeed mitigate the cost of expansion. This was enough to convince some, such as Independent Councillor David Shopland for Clevedon East who said he had to support the airport to ensure “the future prosperity of those who come after us.”
However, others such as Independent Councillor Hugh Gregor dismissed these measures as “simply a wealthy way of avoiding real responsibilities!” Commitments to quieter, greener aircraft it was pointed out, will take years to develop and implement. Moreover, the usage of such technologies is for airlines to introduce not airports.
As for the public transport scheme, councillors and local residents called into question the airport’s commitment to this, given that car parking is currently one of its main sources of revenue.
Councillors across parties reminded the committee that North Somerset council had declared a climate emergency, and this was a resounding reason for refusal on the night. The business case was noted, but in the end, as one Councillor said: “Growth yes, but not at any cost.”
Indeed, the business case for expansion had already been undermined by a New Economics Foundation report. And with mounting evidence of the aviation sector’s environmental impact, many councillors found the decision to be a no-brainer.
Bridget Petty, Green Party Councillor for Backwell, urged North Somerset to take the lead and set an example by choosing the climate over economic expansion. “There are six other airports trying to rush through expansion plans before the UK’s legislation on reducing emissions is implemented,” she said.
The Green Party’s position didn’t fly with everyone. Other councillors said it was the individual’s responsibility to reduce flying, not the local authority’s. The decision not to expand Bristol Airport could conversely increase peoples’ carbon footprint, argued some proponents of the scheme, with flyer’s driving to airports in London and the midlands to fly.
What happens next?
Bristol now joins the ranks of Southampton and Stansted, whose local councillors also voted to reject airport expansion plans of their respective cities. The decision must now be ratified by Councillors at a future meeting, and the airport will have six months to appeal. Speaking after the verdict, David Lees, CEO of Bristol Airport, said the decision was disappointing for the region. The airport will now consider whether to appeal or submit fresh plans. If an appeal is submitted, North Somerset Councillors can expect a protracted and costly journey ahead. The threat of losing on appeal had weighed heavily on the minds of Councillors, but as North Somerset Council Leader Don Davis said, “Councillors cannot live in fear of litigation… We’ve got to take the risk.”
Scenes of celebration
Tarisha Finnegan- Clarke, BAAN
“Absolutely fantastic – it was very tense in there! But in the end, the Councillors spoke from their heart. I’m so happy – we have been working a whole year on this. I am absolutely ecstatic!”
Hilary Burn, Cleeve Parish Councillor
“I have to thank the district councillors for not bottling it! And I commend everyone who put an objection in because it all helped. People now understand we have responsibility for young people’s future and we must act now!”
Donna Robertson, former Councillor
“A brilliant decision and so resounding! The elephant in the room was recognised, the big grey fat climate change issue and I’m so glad it couldn’t be buttoned down to a planning application on site only – it’s fantastic! “
Richard Osbourne, anti-expansion campaigner
“I’m elated! It was just great! We the people voted these councillors in, they had to see things our way. Our children’s health, sleep, congestion, – the whole weight of it came down on their shoulders tonight and they voted with us, they voted our way!”