Councillors refer Stansted Airport decision back to planning committee despite legal advice from officers
PUBLISHED: 17:40 28 June 2019 | UPDATED: 17:54 28 June 2019
Councillors chose to defy legal advice from council officers on Friday by voting not to issue a planning approval notice for Stansted Airport, deciding instead to refer the matter back to the planning committee.
Despite a warning that further delaying the approval notice for the airport could result in a potentially costly appeal, the full council voted overwhelmingly for an amended motion that will see the issuing of the notice determined by the committee at a later date.
Conservative councillor Christian Criscione was the only member to object to the amendment, accusing the ruling Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) administration of using the issue as a "political football".
Fellow Conservative councillor Susan Barker abstained, while 27 other councillors present voted in favour of the motion.
Stansted Airport was granted planning permission to increase its annual passenger throughput from 35 million to 43 million per year at a meeting of the Uttlesford District Council (UDC) planning committee in November last year.
However, the decision was made by the then ruling Conservative administration, which was removed from power in the May elections, leaving R4U with a large majority.
On April 25, R4U issued a requisition notice which prevented UDC from issuing the final planning approval notice to the airport while it sought additional legal advice.
Friday's meeting afforded councillors the chance to reflect on the legal advice and determine whether to issue the planning approval notice.
However, Councillor Paul Fairhurst, of R4U, proposed an amendment which saw the determination referred back to the planning committee instead.
Ahead of the meeting, officers at the district council had issued a stark reminder to councillors about the potential consequences of reversing the decision to grant planning approval, or in delaying the issue of the planning approval notice.
In a report to councillors, Robert Harborough, director of public services, and Simon Pugh, assistant director of governance and legal, said: "The detailed legal advice shared with all members on a confidential basis confirms, subject to one point, that the draft S106 agreement with Stansted Airport faithfully reflects the requirements of the resolution approved by the planning committee on November 14, 2018, and there is no impediment to issue consent.
"The issue outstanding at the time advice was obtained related to the rail users' discount. This is addressed in the main report and the officer advice is that the draft section 106 agreement is fully compliant with the instructions of the planning committee."
The officers added that there have been "no new material considerations and/or changes in circumstances since November 14 that would justify reconsideration of the decision taken by the planning committee on that date".
Messers Harborough and Pugh went on to point out that, if the council were to change its mind or fail to issue the decision notice without a "justifiable reason", the authority would have "insufficient headroom" to cover the potential legal costs of an appeal by Manchester Airports Group, which runs Stansted Airport.
The officers added that, in the event that the decision notice was not approved and an appeal was lodged by the airport, the authority could 'freeze' its £2.1million strategic investment fund to protect against any potential legal costs.
In the lead up to the meeting, Stansted Airport called on councillors to "follow the advice they have received from both their officers and independent legal counsel and issue the airport's planning permission".
Speaking at Friday's meeting, John Twigg, planning director at Stansted, said: "We understand the strength of feeling among local people about our growth but I would ask you to balance that against the feelings of 1,000 people who supported our application, and the 12,000 employees who work at the airport."
"Legally we have to deliver a mitigation package. Your officers and legal advisers have confirmed this is exactly what we have done. We seek no more flights than are currently permitted and have promised a smaller noise footprint
"We want to work with you, as the new council, for the prosperity of your new constituents."
But the majority of councillors were unmoved by the spectre of a legal challenge.
Cllr Fairhurst said: "This is a major application. It might be the biggest application that we as a council will face. It deserves and demands the fullest attention.
"It is not the job of this full council to make this decision. We have a planning committee and it is its job. We either believe we have a planning committee that can do the job or not."
Councillor Anthony Gerard, of R4U, said: "The officers have their job. That is to gives us advice and give us recommendations but it is for us to take decisions. There are issues that have been raised and we, as a council, have a quasi-judicial body called the planning committee that is trained to weigh up matters of planning.
"It is really important that we do not dither. It falls upon us, little UDC, to deal with it. It could have been national but it's not. There are ramifications that go way beyond this district. We are dealing with something that is leaving our district and having effects elsewhere.
"It is serious enough to warrant the amendment to a motion and this amendment is a much better way of handling this matter because we have a planning committee that is trained by planners and officers."
However, Councillor Christian Criscione, Conservative member for Flitch Green and Dunmow, accused R4U of playing "political football" with the issue and said councillors had ignored the advice of legal officers and independent advisors.
He said the council had been left in an "untenable decision" by R4U with a likely legal challenge from Stansted Airport in the event that the decision notice was not issued.
He said: "What grounds have we to ignore the overwhelming evidence provided to this council?"
R4U's Councillor Barbara Light said: "Despite the attempts to paint this as a political process, it is not. We listen, we listened before, and we are still listening to what residents are saying and they have spoken against the current expansion of Stansted Airport."
A petition calling for the application to be referred back to the planning committee was presented to the council at the start of the meeting by the Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE) group. At the time of the meeting it had more than 1,600 signatories.
Brian Ross, deputy chairman of SSE, said: "The application should be referred back to the planning committee. It is the correct procedural and legal approach.
"Officers shouldn't seek to circumvent the role of the planning committee."
Following the meeting, a spokesman for Stansted Airport said: ""We are concerned that the council has not only chosen to ignore the recommendations of its own officers but also disregarded its independent legal advice which supports the original view that there is no legitimate reason to withhold approval for this application.
"Our frustration at this delay will no doubt also be shared by the considerable number of local residents, businesses, staff and on-site partners who have passionately backed these plans, which will boost our region's economic growth and deliver 5,000 additional jobs.
"From the outset we have listened to local views and this feedback lead us to put forward a proposal which maintained the cap on the number of flights and committed to deliver the growth within a legally binding smaller noise footprint than our existing permissions require. This forms part of a comprehensive set of mitigation measures which have been independently endorsed.
"We remain in discussion with the Council while we consider all the options available to us."