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The council are now opposed to Bristol Airport expansion despite previous support. But what does that mean for the plans?


A motion passed at last night’s council meeting commits Bristol City Council to opposing the Bristol Airport expansion and for the mayor to support any councillor wishing to object to the approval of the plans – a reversal of the mayor and Labour’s previous position of support. A majority of councillors agreed expansion was “incompatible” with the region’s carbon reduction targets and “must not go ahead”. In November 2018 Bristol City Council declared a Climate Emergency, which included a commitment to be carbon neutral by 2030.

Labour, Green and the Lib Dems voted as a bloc for the motion, while Conservatives voted against, branding it an “attack on jobs” at the South West’s single biggest employer. 

This is the latest twist in the furious battle that has been waged over Bristol Airport since expansion proposals were announced in December 2018. The plans would mean an extra 23,600 flights and an additional two million passengers a year, as well as 10,000 more car movements a day and a multi-story car park on green belt land. 

Though the airport is within the jurisdiction of North Somerset Council, Bristol City Council is a key stakeholder with political influence on the outcome, and the mayor had previously been stridently in support of the plans, citing potential for new jobs and that demand for flights would otherwise just go elsewhere. North Somerset councillors voted in February to reject expansion plans, however the Airport announced they planned to appeal the decision this September to a government-appointed Planning Inspectorate. 

Speaking after the meeting, Green councillor for Clifton ward Jerome Thomas said, “Today’s result is a step in the right direction to protect the next generation. I’m particularly pleased that the Bristol’s Labour Party have reversed their support for airport expansion”.

The motion proposed by the Green Party called on the full council to oppose the expansion of Bristol Airport and for Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees to write to the Planning Inspectorate and formally object to the airport’s expansion plans.

Labour’s amendment removed the need for the mayor himself to write – but instead calls on the mayor to lend his support to any Bristol City councillor that would like to write, individually or collectively, to the planning inspector hearing the appeal.

“We need to get planes out of the sky,” Marvin Rees said during the public question part of the meeting. “But we need a reality check here, this is between North Somerset and the planning inspectorate. I wish we did have the level of influence that has been here suggested, but we don’t”.

“We need to get planes out of the sky.”

Mayor Marvin Rees

However, as Liberal Democrat Gary Hopkins noted, if that was the case, why had Marvin Rees published blogs and been vocally in support of the expansion if his voice didn’t hold any sway?

Backing the motion, Labour councillor Kye Dudd said that there should be “sympathies with the workers in the aviation industry” who may be affected if the plans don’t go ahead, adding that a “just transition [away from carbon-heavy sector] and a Green New Deal approach” was needed to in order to safeguard workers in the future referencing a potential national policy for large scale investment in a green economy.

Thomas added: “There was a lot of work behind the scenes to ensure Labour’s cooperation and I’m glad we could eventually agree on wording that still changes our council’s position on this issue”.

“Now that Bristol City Council have confirmed their opposition to airport expansion, we hope that the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) and Mayor Tim Bowles will follow suit.” Thomas added, referring to the regional body composed of local authorities and headed by Bowles. 

Currently WECA are in support of expansion plans, though North Somerset are not a local authority member of the regional body. Elections for the WECA mayor are due to take place alongside other local elections in May 2020, though Mr Bowles will not re-stand. 

Analysis: What does this mean? 

Bristol City Council has led the way in declaring climate and ecological emergencies and yet has been gung ho in its support for the proposed expansion of Bristol Airport. Last night this uncomfortable tension, and considerable political criticism directed towards Labour and the Mayor’s position, would be overlooked no longer. 

“Airport expansion” was the Golden motion of the full council meeting, meaning that it was guaranteed to be discussed by all elected representatives. The overwhelming majority of the questions from the public and statements were about the expansion and a contingent from the Bristol Airport Action Network campaigners, and concerned residents had turned out, virtually, in force. 

So what does last night’s decision mean? The airport is in North Somerset, which means expansion is a question for them and will be decided at appeal by the government planning inspector. In that sense, yesterday’s motion is more a political gesture than an enforceable policy.

But, as proponents for the motion argued, the local inquiry by a Government planning inspector to determine the Airport’s appeal is expected to start in July next year. The motion means that now Marvin Rees must support any councillors who want to write to the planning inspectorate, such as Green Councillor Stephen Clarke, who said in a statement after the meeting, “I will be writing a letter to the planning inspectorate formally opposing the airport’s appeal and expect the Mayor to support this”.

The debate among the parties has revolved around the difference of emphasis on jobs versus the need to rapidly decarbonise in order to mitigate climate collapse.

The motion in Bristol was followed by a Committee on Climate Change report released today citing the need to curb emissions from flying if the UK is to meet climate targets.

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