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Bristol Airport expansion case highlights loopholes in national climate policy, say campaigners

Lawyers bringing the anti-expansion case to the High Court want to emphasise that no one is considering the cumulative impact of regional airport expansions.

Feature image: Rosie Rowland

Bristol and the Climate Crisis

Stephen Clarke from Bristol Airport Action Network (BAAN) has been fighting Bristol Airport’s plans to expand for years. When we meet for a coffee in Wapping Wharf, he explains how the delay caused by their campaign has saved one million tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere every year since 2020, when the airport initially applied for planning permission. Every year, he also hopes national policy will be updated so that it no longer supports airport expansion.

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We’re meeting because the campaign group has successfully secured an appeal hearing at the High Court in the autumn, where a judge will consider whether a decision to allow the transport hub to expand was lawful. The hearing will take place on 7 and 8 November on home turf as the campaigners had hoped, in the Bristol Civic Justice Centre.

Securing the hearing means the judge believes their grounds for appeal, based largely on climate issues, have merit. The campaigners’ lawyers intend to highlight how current national policy allows airports to expand without even taking plane emissions or the cumulative impact of regional airport expansions on the UK’s carbon budget into account.

The planning inspectorate – essentially independent planning experts from Michael Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – decided in February after last year’s 10-week inquiry that Bristol Airport should be allowed to expand. This overturned North Somerset council’s earlier decision to refuse planning permission, due largely to concerns about the climate crisis. It’s what environmentalists have been calling the biggest climate decision facing the South West.

The loophole that ignores plane emissions

One of the key grounds for appeal in the High Court case is that the inspectorate’s decision did not take into account emissions from planes, which will increase with 2 million extra annual passengers if the expansion goes ahead. This is due to a mixture of planning loopholes and out-of-date aviation policy: because emissions targets are set nationally not locally, the inspectors said they did not have to take emissions from planes into account in this landmark climate decision.

Local authorities’ decisions on airport expansions can be overturned based on government policy such as Make Best Use and the Airports National Policy Statement, which both indicate that carbon emissions should be calculated at a national level and support airport expansion. This support is based on a 2018 assessment of emissions, noted Tim Johnson, director of Aviation Environmental Federation (AEF), which means the policy is out of date given the UK’s more recent commitment to be net zero by 2050.

“It is nothing short of crazy that this huge decision is being made without taking into account carbon emissions from the 20,000 plus extra planes that will fly over Bristol if this expansion is allowed,” said Clarke. “BAAN has resisted these expansion plans for more than three years and will continue to do so.”

Dan Norris, metro mayor for the West of England, said: “Expanding Bristol Airport, when it’s not full anyway, goes against everything the climate science tells us is urgently needed. Here in the West of England it drives a coach and horses through our ambitious 2030 net zero target.

“This comes from a government that doesn’t take the climate emergency seriously. Remember Rishi Sunak [recently] introduced a 50 per cent cut in Air Passenger Duty for domestic flights.”

The cumulative impact of airport expansions

As it stands, current policy also fails to take into account the cumulative impact of schemes such as airport expansions or new roads on the nation’s carbon targets. So while the government’s Climate Change Committee allows for no more than 25% growth in aviation passenger numbers on 2018 levels, current planned airport expansions at 20 or so regional airports will result in passenger numbers three times this figure, according to analysis by AEF. On top of this, many existing airports have spare capacity that would be sufficient to reach the cap on growth.

“What urgently needs to change is the Government’s current piecemeal approach to airport policy,” commented metro mayor Norris. “They need to consider the cumulative impact of all airport expansion plans across the county, rather than on the current case-by-case basis, and I’ve made this point explicitly to Mr Gove and Department of Transport officials.

“More than 20 regional airports want to expand which would lead to an extra 80 million passengers a year, but no consideration has been given to the combined impact of their additional emissions. Each one is being treated in isolation thereby making their climate impact appear less significant.”

Johnson from AEF added: “We believe there should be a moratorium on all airport expansions until the government has set out clear plans showing how passenger growth at UK airports can be consistent with our net zero climate target.”

Nationally, NGOs are lobbying for the government to change its policy support on airport expansion until aviation emissions are actually in decline. But so far, it seems to be falling on deaf ears. The government released a ten point plan for aviation last month, which included a point on “support[ing] growth in airport capacity where it is justified.”

Climate is ‘neutral in the planning balance’

Another ground for appeal in the Bristol Airport case is the inspectorate’s assumption that ‘levelling up’ minister Gove would comply with his legal duty under the Climate Change Act 2008. This is what enshrines in law the UK’s target to reach net zero emissions by 2050 – even though, the report admitted, there is no current policy to uphold this.

Other grounds are that the report discounted the climate impact of non-CO2 emissions such as contrails, even though the government’s own planners agree that they greatly influence total emissions, and that it ignored how the expansion would overwhelm North Somerset’s carbon budget. The report’s section on the climate crisis concluded that climate change “must be regarded as neutral in the planning balance”.

A spokesperson from the planning inspectorate said: “Inspectors are independent and impartial. When making a decision, inspectors give careful consideration to the evidence submitted at the time of the appeal taking account of current planning legislation, guidance and policy.”

What happens next 

If BAAN is successful the planning permission would no longer be valid. Most of the grounds for appeal are around the climate crisis, so if they win then the planning inspectorate would have to take the judge’s ruling into account when making the decision again and possibly re-run parts of last year’s inquiry.

What’s more important is the precedent that winning will set. “If we are successful in this case, it could have national significance as the other campaigning groups trying to stop expansion elsewhere in the UK could use our decision as a precedent,” said Clarke. “That’s one of the reasons why this is the biggest carbon decision in this area for many years.”

Clarke is cautiously optimistic. 90% of cases are rejected at the appeal stage, but BAAN’s lawyers were told by a judge who examined the papers that they were successful in reaching the full hearing stage without needing to give oral evidence beforehand, which points to the strength of their case. Tim Johnson from the AEF also thinks the Bristol case is strong, especially as the arguments differ from those that were recently rejected by the High Court in relation to the Southampton Airport expansion, which were largely around the legal processes of securing planning permission.

To keep net zero hopes alive, climate activists are taking on airports across the UK. The most high profile was Heathrow’s new runway, which got closer to being given the go ahead in 2020 when the Supreme Court ruled that government policy had taken the Paris Agreement into account. Then in May 2021, the planning inspectorate overturned Uttlesford District Council’s decision to refuse Stansted’s expansion, which was based on climate concerns. In May this year, the High Court then threw out a bid from activists to stop Southampton Airport expanding.

And yet, against a backdrop of judges ruling in favour of airport expansion, Gove has increasingly been ‘calling in’ these decisions to make them himself. In January, he put a block on construction at Leeds Bradford Airport, which had been granted planning permission for a new terminal and a near doubling in passenger numbers from four to seven million. His department deliberated until the developers withdrew their application in March due to ‘excessive delays’. Then again in April, Gove called in the decision on Luton Airport citing ‘concerns over climate change targets’. An inquiry will now take place into the expansion plan.

Clarke hopes Gove could begin considering the Bristol Airport expansion in the context of all the regional airports hoping to expand and the cumulative impact of the increase in emissions.

Metro mayor Norris said: “Michael Gove has also failed to explain why he is calling in expansion plans for Luton and Leeds Bradford but not Bristol and elsewhere. It doesn’t add up. And forcing local planning authorities to rely on outdated policies when making long-term infrastructure decisions flies in the face of good sense. The planning system is not fit-for-purpose.

“I am hopeful the High Court will overturn this flawed decision.”

Gove may still call in the Bristol Airport case. His decision to do this with airports elsewhere, while no substitute for proper policy, could mark the beginning of a shift away from unfettered airport expansion. As Johnson from the AEF said, these latest moves “certainly suggest the government is cautious about relying on its existing policies without further scrutiny of the impacts”. Whether the same thing will happen with Bristol Airport before autumn’s High Court hearing remains to be seen.

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