Public views on Bristol Airport expansion won't fall on deaf ears, inspectors confirm

Bristol airport sign

Airport inquiry opens - Credit: Bristol Airport

Ignoring thousands of comments on the expansion of Bristol Airport would damage public trust and threaten the integrity of local democracy, campaigners have warned. 

Impassioned residents and expert witnesses have clocked up more than 24 hours of testimonies since the 10-week inquiry opened last week

The planning inspectors hearing the appeal have given assurances it will not be a “tick-box” exercise and said the verbal and written submissions will be taken into account when they decide to uphold or overturn North Somerset Council’s decision. 

The airport – which wants to boost passenger numbers from 10million to 12million a year – has complained it was treated unfairly by the authority and put to substantial cost by its “wrong and unreasonable” behaviour. 

More: Protesters take to the streets against Bristol Airport.

John Adams at the Bristol Airport inquiry

John Adams at the Bristol Airport inquiry - Credit: YouTube

Speaking at the inquiry, Butcombe resident John Adams from the Stop Bristol Airport Expansion campaign group said: “This planning application and now the appeal against its refusal has aroused widespread public interest in deep passion. 

“We can find little reassurance that there is a sound transparent mechanism through which public opinion articulated so widely over many months will play a significant role in the decision-making process. 

“Evidence of the weight of public opinion is very material to the decisions of this inquiry and should therefore play a major role in the decision-making process. 

“Without transparency it’s difficult to sway to scepticism expressed in some quarters who see this inquiry or might see this inquiry as a bureaucratic tick-box exercise designed to reign in the wilful and unruly tendencies of local democracy. 

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“If this inquiry were simply a technical exercise the guidelines and the extensive expensive consultation will be revealed as a simple cosmetic. 

“This will constitute a major and cynical abuse of public trust in the planning procedure with wider implications for the integrity of local democracy.”

Planning inspector Phillip Ware replied: “We’ve read an enormous amount of written material that’s come in from people for and against. We’ve obviously got a lot of people appearing at the inquiry in person and virtually. 

“It is absolutely not a tick-box exercise. 

“We will be dealing with the public views in our decision whichever way the decision goes.”

Here are some of the most powerful comments from the first week of the inquiry. 

The number of speakers for and against mirrors the comments on the planning application – 2,431 in favour and 8,931 against. 

In support of the expansion

John Sweeney at the Bristol Airport inquiry

John Sweeney at the Bristol Airport inquiry - Credit: YouTube

John Sweeney from the union Unite, which represents airport staff, said: “Since Covid has taken away so many jobs we’re looking at the positives now. This is a positive story – the estimate is going to be over 700 direct jobs if the expansion goes ahead and it could be up to 5,000 indirect jobs. It should be a massive boost for the local economy.” 

James Durie at the Bristol Airport inquiry

James Durie at the Bristol Airport inquiry - Credit: YouTube

Bristol Chamber of Commerce chief executive James Durie said: “Constraining this region’s main airport risks cutting business off from the world or forcing them to use airports outside the region, putting the region at a competitive disadvantage. 

“We know there is much more to do right across the aerospace and aviation sectors which have a major footprint in this region but also have major ambitions and continuing investment to do just this. 

“We do not think an ad hoc decision to limit aviation capacity only at Bristol Airport by one local authority is the right way to proceed. 

“A decision to limit or reduce flying should be taken by national government as part of a broader democratic process alongside a coherent national carbon reduction plan.”

John Mayer from the Federation of Small Businesses 

“At a time when being open for business has never been more important, supporting the sustainable growth of our regional gateway will send a strong signal that we continue to welcome trade tourism and investment from overseas to the benefit of the SME owners across every sector we represent. 

“Additional opportunities provided by an expansion of the airport’s capacity for trade investment and tourism in the region and the 5,000 new jobs that will be created must be given appropriate weight.”

Representing the airport, Michael Humphries QC said: “Bristol Airport Ltd feels that it has been treated unfairly by the planning system and put to substantial cost and that North Somerset Council’s behaviour has been both wrong and indeed unreasonable.” 

He said: “The government has made clear the importance it attaches to airports and their expansion. The merits of government policy are not a matter of debate for this local planning inquiry.

“To artificially restrict the ability of individuals to fly by deliberately constraining capacity as some have suggested would have profound implications in a free society.”

He added: “The concerns of North Somerset Council and other parties [about carbon emissions] are unfounded. Indeed, much of the evidence simply seeks to mount an attack on government policy or speculate as to what future policy may be.”

Arguments against the expansion

Jenny Denny at the Bristol Airport inquiry

Jenny Denny at the Bristol Airport inquiry - Credit: YouTube

Chew Magna teacher Jenny Denny said: “I have no doubt that when William Wilberforce stood up in parliament and condemned the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful, many politicians decried his plans to abolish slavery as economic suicide. 

“They were wrong. Sometimes the right decision has to be made. 

“[Bristol Airport owner] The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund’s quest for ever-increasing profits will be paid for by our children, the local community and the planet.” 

Caroline Lucas at the Bristol Airport inquiry

Caroline Lucas at the Bristol Airport inquiry - Credit: YouTube

Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “Local democracy thoroughly considered the airport’s plans and decided against them and despite this the airport has now ignored these voices and called for this appeal. 

“Now not only does that threaten to override local democracy, it also threatens the efforts that local communities and councils are trying to take to address the climate crisis themselves. 

“If expansion goes ahead, what kind of message does that send to the public who are already trying their best to contribute to climate mitigation but confused by the conflicting signals that have been given out?”

Grandmother-of-three Caroline New said: “Even if it’s finally decided that the airport’s appeal meets current legal standards, morally it represents a cynical betrayal of the interests of children alive today and of generations to come.” 

Phil Heath at the Bristol Airport inquiry

Phil Heath at the Bristol Airport inquiry - Credit: YouTube

Phil Heath, the chair of governors at Chew Valley School, said: “Many of the pupils live close to the airport, many have their sleep spoiled by noise from the aeroplanes, many cannot cycle along the country lanes that are used as rat runs to get to the airport. 

“Many of the children are terrified of the prospect of climate change, and yet the children struggle to have their voices heard. 

“Pupils at Chew Valley School are taught to respect democracy and democratic decisions, they’re taught to act responsibly even when it’s difficult to do so, and they’re taught to look at the reality behind glib proposals that are too good to be true – Bristol Airport could follow their example.”

Felton resident Abbi Williams said: “I don’t know how I’d have a good night’s sleep again if it [the number of night flights] increases. 

“The amount of vehicles going through the village has just increased exponentially over the last few years. There are lanes I won’t walk down any more because it’s just too dangerous with cars careering around. 

“Taxi drivers park in people’s driveways, they defecate in people’s driveways. 

“The airport parking has been awful in the last few years. Some villagers are very angry and damage the cars. 

“It’s not overdramatic to say it impacts on our everyday life.”

The inquiry continues

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