Stansted Airport

This blog post covers yesterday’s High Court ruling in Ross & Sanders (obo Stop Stansted Expansion) v Secretary of State for Transport (Dove J, 7 February 2020), where the issue before the court was whether an application for planning permission for development at Stansted Airport, made to the local planning authority, Uttlesford District Council, by the airport under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, should instead have been pursued as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP), to be determined by the Secretary of State for Transport. I also set out the timeline as to the council’s decision-making in relation to the planning application. I have limited what I say to a factual account, given that my firm is acting for the airport (alongside Tom Hill QC and Philippa Jackson from 39 Essex chambers).

The airport is subject to a cap of 35 million passengers per annum (mppa) and a cap of 274,000 air traffic movements (ATMs) per annum. On 22 February 2018 the airport submitted an application for planning permission which involved “building two new taxiway links, being a rapid entry taxiway and a rapid exit taxiway, and nine additional aircraft stands. These new developments are planned to take place in four separate locations within the existing footprint of Stansted Airport. It is uncontentious that these developments would increase the use of Stansted Airport’s single runway and its potential to handle aircraft movements. The planning application also includes a request for the planning cap of 35 million passengers per annum (“mppa”) to be increased to 43 mppa.” It was not proposed to increase the ATMs cap.

The relevant part of section 23 of the Planning Act 2008 provides that airport-related development is to be treated as an NSIP in the case of any “alteration” to an airport the effect of which is “to increase by at least 10 million per year the number of passengers for whom the airport is capable of providing air passenger transport services”.

Section 23(6) provides that “”alterationin relation to an airport, includes the construction, extension or alteration of:


(a) a runway at the airport,

(b) a building at the airport, or

(c) a radar or radio mast, antenna or other apparatus at the airport.”

The Secretary of State for Transport determined on 28 June 2018 that the 10 mppa threshold would not be exceeded and that he would not exercise his discretionary power under section 35 of the Act to treat the proposals as nationally significant and therefore subject to the 2008 Act decision-taking process and a decision at a national level. The latter determination was taken against the background of the Secretary of State’s publication on 5 June 2018 of the government’s “”Airports National Policy Statement: new runway capacity and infrastructure at airports in south-east of England” (NPS) together with the policy “Beyond the horizon: The future of UK aviation-Making best use of existing runways” (“MBU”).The MBU policy paper stated that the government would be using its Aviation Strategy to progress its wider policy towards tackling aviation carbon. “”[T]o ensure that our policy is compatible with the UK’s climate change commitments we have used the DfT aviation model to look at the impact of allowing all airports to make best use of their existing runway capacity.” The paper stated:

Airports that wish to increase either the passenger or air traffic movement caps to allow them to make best use of their existing runways will need to submit applications to the relevant planning authority. We expect that applications to increase existing planning caps by fewer than 10 million passengers per annum (mppa) can be taken forward through local planning authorities under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. As part of any planning application airports will need to demonstrate how they will mitigate against local environmental issues, taking account of relevant national policies, including any new environmental policies emerging from the Aviation Strategy. This policy statement does not prejudice the decision of those authorities who will be required to give proper consideration to such applications. It instead leaves it up to local, rather than national government, to consider each case on its merits.”

Stop Stansted Expansion challenged the Secretary of State’s 28 June 2018 determination on two grounds: that the airport’s proposals would in fact lead to the 10 mppa cap being exceeded and that the Secretary of State should have used his discretionary power to treat the proposals as an NSIP, the claimant relying, amongst other things on a “suggestion that the application was in truth part of a wider project for expansion of passenger throughput in excess of the NSIP definition, and the ramifications of increased carbon emissions as a result of increased air travel which ought to have led to the conclusion that the development should be treated as an NSIP.”

On the first ground, the court accepted that the proposed works amounted to an “alteration” of an airport (the argument was as to whether the definition was for the purposes of these proposals limited to alterations to a runway but Dove J accepted a wider definition, given the word “includes” in sub-section (6)). However, the court found that the Secretary of State was correct to conclude that the 10 mppa threshold would not be breached:

I am satisfied that the submissions of the Defendant in this respect are undoubtedly correct. The language of the statute in relation to whether the alteration will “increase by at least 10 million per year the number of passengers for whom the airport is capable of providing air passenger transport services” requires the Defendant to form a judgment in relation to that question. In my view that judgment is to be formed by asking what increase in capacity could realistically be achieved, not what might technically or arithmetically be possible. It requires an analysis based on how the infrastructure is likely to perform, not a hypothetical approach assuming speculative figures in relation to each aspect of the calculation of capacity to show what might be possible rather than what is likely to occur in practice.”

On the second ground, the court noted that from the statutory language of section 35 of the 2008 Act “the Defendant is granted a broad discretion as to whether or not to treat an application for development which does not otherwise meet the definitions for an NSIP as a project which requires development consent on the basis of national significance. Bearing in mind the prescriptive nature of the definitions for various types of NSIP contained in the 2008 Act, the discretion under section 35 is a broad one. Given the nature of the Defendant’s decision, as one which was exercised using a relatively broad discretion, the task of the Claimants to show that the judgment which the Defendant reached was unlawful is daunting.

The court concluded that similarly ground 2 was not made out. One of the claimant’s submissions was that the MBU carbon emissions modelling was flawed and had “underestimated the effects of growth in aircraft traffic at Stansted airport”. The judge accepted the Secretary of State’s submission that in “reality this aspect of the Defendant’s decision was essentially based on reliance on the MBU policy, and that the substance of the Claimants’ case is in fact a challenge to the legality of that policy in disguise (see paragraphs 95 and 96 above). Certainly, the legality of that policy is now beyond argument. As such I accept that the Defendant was, lawfully, entitled to reach the conclusion which he did, based squarely on the MBU policy that “an increase in the planning cap at [Stansted]…could be adequately mitigated to meet the CCC’s 2050 planning assumption”. That was a conclusion which applied the provisions of the MBU policy (see paragraphs 38 to 40 above) which had considered that proposals of this scale would not imperil the achievement of climate change targets in the light of the modelling work which had informed the policy.”

The Defendant has provided in the evidence a clear and coherent explanation of the purpose of the modelling (namely for long-term forecasting at a national level) and the basis on which it was constructed so as to inform and justify the policy in MBU relating to whether planning proposals at airports could be adequately mitigated and dealt with at the local level. Once this background to the technical work is understood, then it becomes clear that the criticisms of the Claimants, based upon short-term analysis or examination of individual years is without substance.”

Accordingly, the airport had been correct to pursue the proposals by way of an application for planning permission to the local planning authority, and the Secretary of State had not acted unlawfully in declining to intervene by way of directing that the proposals should proceed as an NSIP.

So was the local planning authority, Uttlesford District Council, now free to determine the application? Well this would have been the case if it had not resolved, against officers’ recommendations, to refuse planning permission on 24 January 2020, the decision notice then having been issued on 29 January 2020.

It has been a twisting route, summarised in the report prepared for Extraordinary Planning Committee meetings that were held on on 17 and 24 January 2020 (the passages in quotation marks below), with additional factual insertions by me:

The claimant made requests on 19 April and 14 June 2018 to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government for the application to be called in. He responded that the Secretary of State for Transport should first determine whether the application should be treated as an NSIP.

The Secretary of State determined on 28 June 2018 that the application was not to be treated as an NSIP. Stop Stansted Expansion issued judicial review proceedings in relation to that decision (those proceedings eventually being dismissed on 7 February 2020 as described above).

On 14 November 2018, the Planning Committee resolved to grant the application, subject to conditions and subject to completion of an agreement imposing legally binding planning obligations (“section 106 agreement”). The Report and Supplementary Reports identified the planning obligations required. The precise form that the section 106 agreement should take, in accordance with the amended recommendation, was resolved to be delegated to officers. Subsequently, a proposed S106 Agreement was drawn up between the Council, Essex County Council (as relevant highway authority) and Stansted Airport Ltd.”

On 20 March 2019 the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government decided not to call in the application. Stop Stansted Expansion issued judicial review proceedings in relation to that decision (Legal bid lodged after Government rejects ‘call in’ of Stansted Airport planning application, Saffron Walden Reporter, 28 March 2019). Those proceedings were subsequently withdrawn.

The purdah period commenced ahead of local government elections on 2 May 2019.

5. An Extraordinary Meeting of the Council was called for 25 April 2019 to consider the following motion:

“To instruct the Chief Executive and fellow officers not to issue a Planning Decision Notice for planning application UTT/18/0460/FUL until the related Section 106 Legal Agreement between UDC and Stansted Airport Limited and the Planning Conditions have been scrutinised, reviewed and approved by the Council’s Planning Committee after the local elections.

The motion was defeated by 14 votes to 18 votes.

6. A further Extraordinary Meeting was called to consider the following motion:

To instruct the Chief Executive and fellow officers not to issue the Planning Decision Notice for planning application UTT/18/0460/FUL until members have had an opportunity to review and obtain independent legal corroboration that the legal advice provided to officers, including the QC opinion referred to by the Leader of the Council on 9th April 2019, confirms that the proposed Section 106 Agreement with Stansted Airport Limited fully complies with the Resolution approved by the Planning Committee on 14 November 2018 such that officers are lawfully empowered to conclude and seal the Agreement without further reference to the Planning Committee.

The meeting was originally scheduled for 3 June but was deferred until 28 June to allow further time for consideration of legal advice.

7. An informal meeting was held on 30 April with members who had requisitioned the Extraordinary Meeting. It was agreed:

⁃ that officers would not complete the section 106 agreement and issue the

planning consent for the time being;

⁃ That the legal advice previously obtained from Christiaan Zwart, barrister,

would be circulated to all members;

⁃ That a briefing session would be held for all members, with Christiaan Zwart in attendance to answer questions about his advice;

⁃ That, if need be, further advice would be sought at Q.C. level and a further briefing for all councillors would be held. This advice would focus on whether the planning obligation requirements made by the Planning Committee have been incorporated fully and effectively into the s106 agreement, and on the origin and consequences of any “gaps” if any between the Planning Committee Resolution and the resulting S106 Agreement.”

At the local government elections on 2 May 2019, the council came under the control of Residents 4 Uttlesford by a substantial majority.

8. A briefing meeting for all councillors was called for 14 May. Advice obtained from the Council’s barrister, Christiaan Zwart, was circulated prior to the meeting. He spoke to his advice on 14 May and answered questions.

9. Further advice was then obtained from Stephen Hockman Q.C. working jointly with Christiaan Zwart. Their joint advice was sent to members prior to a second briefing meeting held on 21 May. They answered questions raised by members at that briefing. Issues raised at the briefing meeting by members, and by Stop Stansted Expansion separately, led to additional further advice from Stephen Hockman, Q.C. and Christiaan Zwart. This also was shared with all members of the Council. In all cases information was shared on a legally privileged and confidential basis.

10. At the Extraordinary Meeting of Full Council on 28 June officers were instructed not to issue a Planning Decision Notice for planning application UTT/18/0460/FUL until the Planning Committee had considered:

(i) the adequacy of the proposed Section 106 Agreement between UDC and Stansted Airport Ltd, having regard to the Heads of Terms contained in the resolution approved by the Council’s Planning Committee on 14th November 2018;

(ii) any new material considerations and/or changes in circumstances since 14 November 2018 to which weight may now be given in striking the planning balance or which would reasonably justify attaching a different weight to relevant factors previously considered.

11. Since that meeting further expert legal advice has been obtained from Philip Coppel QC at the request of Members, and officers have been supporting members of the Planning Committee in preparing to consider the two matters set out above through a series of workshop sessions, in part owing to the significant change in membership of the committee. These sessions have taken members through the content of the draft obligations and issues that might be raised as potential new material considerations and regarded as a material change in circumstances since 14 November. They have provided opportunities for councillors and officers to ensure the obligations and issues are fully understood.

12. This report seeks to set out the issues comprehensively, to enable the Committee to comply with the Council resolution and authorise the release of the appropriate decision notice on the planning application.”

Officers recommended the following:

The Assistant Director – Planning be authorised to issue the decision notice approving the planning application subject to the planning conditions as resolved by the Planning Committee on 14 November 2018 on signing of the amended S106 Agreement appended to this report.”

The Committee sat on 17 and 24 January 2020. Members rejected the officers’ recommendation (ten members voting to reject it, with two abstentions).

The reasons for refusal set out on the decision notice are as follows:

1 The applicant has failed to demonstrate that the additional flights would not result in an increased detrimental effect from aircraft noise, contrary to Uttlesford Local Plan Policy ENV11 and the NPPF.

2 The application has failed to demonstrate that the additional flights would not result in a detrimental effect on air quality, specifically but not exclusively PM2.5 and ultrafine particulates contrary to Uttlesford Local Plan Policy ENV13 and paragraph 181 of the NPPF.

3 The additional emissions from increased international flights are incompatible with the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation that emissions from all UK departing flights should be at or below 2005 levels in 2050. This is against the backdrop of the amendment to the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) to reduce the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 to net zero from the 1990 baseline. This is therefore contrary to the general accepted perceptions and understandings of the importance of climate change and the time within which it must be addressed. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to approve the application at a time whereby the Government has been unable to resolve its policy on international aviation climate emissions.

4 The application fails to provide the necessary infrastructure to support the application, or the necessary mitigation to address the detrimental impact of the proposal contrary to Uttlesford Local Plan Policies GEN6, GEN1, GEN7, ENV7, ENV11 and ENV13.

If you are interested in the debate that led to these conclusions, you are out of luck: No webcast or sound recording of the 24 January session is apparently available. There is an apology on the council’s website:

Unfortunately the broadcasting of today’s meeting failed. Officers worked throughout the day, in liaison with the supplier, to identify and rectify the problem without success.

It has now been established that the back-up local recording of the meeting also failed, meaning an audio recording of the meeting will not be available on the council’s website.

We sincerely apologise to those who had wanted to ‘listen in’ or ‘listen again’ to the meeting.”

From lack of sound to lack of soundness…

The inspectors examining Uttlesford’s local plan concluded in their 10 January 2020 post stage 1 hearings letter as follows:

Unfortunately, despite the additional evidence that has been submitted during the examination and all that we have now read and heard in the examination, including the suggested main modifications to the plan (ED41) put forward by the Council, we have significant concerns in relation to the soundness of the plan. In particular, we are not persuaded that there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the Garden Communities, and thus the overall spatial strategy, have been justified. We therefore cannot conclude that these fundamental aspects of the plan are sound.”

But that, friends, is for another blog post.

Simon Ricketts, 8 February 2020

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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