Why I voted to reject Bristol Airport expansion

Late last night I was one of 18 councillors who supported Cllr Steve Hogg’s motion and voted to refuse a planning application proposing the expansion of Bristol Airport. 

This is why.

What follows is more or less a transcript of what I said at the special meeting of North Somerset Council’s Planning and Regulatory Committee. I left out one or two paragraphs after being hurried on by the Committee Chair ;)

I want to first address the perceived economic benefits of expansion.

I can appreciate why Bristol Airport wants to grow. One of the questions we need to be asking is ‘does it need to grow?’

I think the forecast demand for air travel is questionable. Let’s face it, this has occurred because of unsustainably low prices. I could fly to Milan for a tenner or to Seville for £15. That’s bonkers. I think we have to hope that will change in the future.

Climate change will radically reshape how we live, work and play. Not everything can stay the same.

Yet market-driven ‘predict and provide’ transport planning remains dominant in this country… and the airport tells us that the increased demand will not go away. We appear to be ‘locked in’ to business as usual.

But there is some evidence emerging from Germany and Sweden that mounting concern about carbon emissions may be altering travel habits.

As Mr Romaine said in his summing up for objectors, there is still some headroom for passenger growth within the airport’s [planning] permission from 2011. The officer report also points out that DfT projections show nominal growth above the current permitted 10 million passengers per annum (mppa) by 2050. Bristol Airport’s proposals would see more than 97,000 flights a year – a 20,000 increase on 2018 – and an increase in the operational capacity of about one third on what it is today.

There is no doubt Bristol Airport is a great facility. I have used the airport twice myself in the last 3 years. As one resident of Claverham in my ward put it: “the airport serves its purpose admirably… but is plenty big enough.”

Is Bristol Airport even in the right location for continued growth? The share of business travellers at the airport is very small – and as Dr Liam Fox MP said this week, it is not the natural entry and exit point for business traffic.

While I think the economic benefits are overstated, expansion would generate jobs – the airport says an additional 800 jobs on-site. I don’t argue with that; but as a Council we are committed to promoting sustainable growth in North Somerset and emerging jobs in the green economy… and this is a goal we have articulated in our new Corporate Plan.

We have to deliver on that, of course.

Carbon emissions
From what I have heard this evening, we are being asked to decouple forecasts of economic benefits from emissions targets.

But to quote the economist, Dr. Herman Daly…

“The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse.”

We’re told the airport has accelerated plans to become carbon neutral by 2025. I genuinely welcome that step. It’s ambitious.

But there is a catch: those plans only take account of what happens on the ground.

I realise that aircraft emissions are something the airport does not directly control, but it does have a declared ambition to serve up to 20 mppa by the mid-2040s.

Last week an aviation coalition launched a roadmap to cut net carbon emissions to zero, but I noticed the roadmap relies on offsetting for more than a third of the industry’s projected emissions to 2050, which I think rather misses the point.

A few days ago colleagues received an email from Andy O’Brien, Co-director at the Bristol Energy Cooperative. Mr O’Brien advised that “technical advancements to green aircraft fuel won’t be implementable at scale by 2030.” I think he’s right.

He also argued that expanding Bristol Airport would produce “a massive source of additional Green House Gas emissions, [which would] obliterate all regional efforts to reach net-zero by 2030”. Again, it is hard not to agree.

A word on noise and traffic

The costs on local communities from aircraft noise are higher during the night – particularly the health costs associated with sleep disturbance.

The airport flight path particularly impacts residents in Claverham and those who live at the southern end of Yatton.  Many cannot sleep with the windows open – and this proposal will add to the summer overnight flights schedule. This is a material consideration and I give this significant weight.

I think it is worth noting that during the 2018 summer season there were just under 3,000 aircraft movements during the night quota period of 23:30 to 06:00… but a further 5,000 aircraft movements during the ‘shoulder periods’ (06:00 – 07:00 and 23:00 – 23:30).

One Claverham resident has commented, “as one plane passes out of earshot, the approaching rumble of another replaces it.”

I welcome any commitment to funding initiatives to mitigate the impact of aircraft noise for residents and to support projects in surrounding communities situated close to the airport. I’m pleased that will continue, and whatever happens this evening I will be asking for the noise insulation mitigation catchment to be extended to include the affected areas of my ward.

The country lanes around Yatton are constantly used by airport taxis as a rat run. Our High Street is already blighted by road traffic (Speedwatch routinely register 800-1,000 vehicles an hour) and we’re talking here of an additional 5,000+ two-way car journeys on an average summer’s day.

Around 12.5 per cent of passengers use public transport to travel to the airport. I agree with Yatton Parish Council who said that the modal shift targets are aspirational and unambitious in the extreme – and I’m not sure what as a Council we could do should they not be achieved.

To conclude…

I am struggling to see how you can mitigate a climate emergency through planning conditions.

Is substantially increasing the carbon footprint and therefore the impact on climate change a material consideration we need to consider for the planning application  before us?

The legal advice we received was that ‘yes, this is likely to be a material consideration for a major application’.

Our officers have concluded that the impact on climate change is considered to be acceptable in terms of Policies CS1 and CS2 of our development plan. I profoundly disagree.

I do agree with Wrington Parish Council who have commented that “climate change impacts cannot be mitigated sufficiently from the proposals put forward.”

The airport has a mixed record when it comes to delivering against previous commitments – one reason why I think this should be a full planning application rather than an outline one.

I am struggling to see how you can mitigate a climate emergency through planning conditions – which is what we’re being asked to do.

Bristol Airport is successful and long may that continue. That will not suddenly change should Members refuse the application as submitted.

Of the residents in my ward who commented, 85% object to this application. I will be joining them and shall vote for refusal.

My address runs from 2:45:17 to 2:53:18

Featured image: a visual representation of annual average temperatures for England from 1884-2018 using data from UK Met Office. Graphics and lead scientist: Ed Hawkins

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