Luton Airport expansion to go ahead

Luton Airport operators LLAOL have announced that Eric Pickles, Secretary of State, has decided not to call in the expansion plans, meaning that Luton Borough Council can now grant planning permission for works designed to achieve a doubling of annual passenger capacity.

The government is clearly hell-bent on expanding airport capacity in the South East, come what may. Regardless of the fact that 70% of the public who responded to the consultation over Luton Airport Expansion said NO, ignoring the fact that aviation is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases, and despite the application technically constituting a nationally significant infrastructure project, Eric Pickles has failed to call this application in for proper scrutiny.

The airport’s announcement this morning mentions everything except the key local issues: the effect of an extra 9 million passengers per year on the already crowded transport infrastructure, and the effect of noise from 60% more flights. The throwaway comment at the end about being a good neighbour is meaningless unless the airport takes seriously the concerns about noise and puts in place measures to make a difference. That means a Noise Action Plan which has some real bite, and Planning Conditions which control noise over local communities.

Luton Airport update

Although the Luton Airport expansion planning application was approved by Luton Borough Council last December, the matter has been referred to the Secretary of State to consider whether it should be called in for independent scrutiny. In the meantime an Article 25 direction has been issued preventing the Council from issuing planning permission pending the decision by Eric Pickles.

HALE has pointed out clear shortcomings in the Planning Conditions laid down by Luton Borough Council, including the omission of the airport operator’s own commitment to reduce the night noise violation limit from 82dB to 80dB by Jan 2015, and thereafter to reduce it to 77dB. The Planning Conditions replace this by a requirement for a plan to phase out noisier aircraft at night by an unspecified date, and set equal noise violation levels for day and night movements, thus failing to incentivise quieter night-time flights.

Luton Airport has meantime launched a consultation on the introduction of RNAV, a modern navigation technology, on one of the westerly departure routes. This system keeps aircraft on more tightly defined tracks, though track-keeping is not as reliable as hoped during windy weather and HALE has encouraged the airport to move as quickly as possible to the next-generation system, RNP1. Associated with the trials of RNAV is a welcome mandate that aircraft should not be given “short cut” headings by Air Traffic Control until they reach 4000ft or have crossed the railway between Harpenden and St Albans. This reduces wayward flights.

Details of the RNAV consultation can be found on the airport’s website.

easyJet signs 10-year deal at Luton Airport

easyJet has announced a new 10-year deal with Luton Airport, and foresees passenger expansion from 4 million to 9 million over the next 10 years if the proposed expansion goes ahead, with a 20% growth next year. When asked by HALE about investing in quieter aircraft, easyJet’s Group Commercial Director Cath Lynn confirmed plans to introduce new quieter types by 2017. She also committed to adding new flights in the daytime hours rather than at night.

Nevertheless in light of the serious concerns being expressed about global warming, easyJet’s announcement may be seen as moving in the wrong direction. Aviation’s contribution to greenhouse gases is growing faster than any other source, and is in danger of eclipsing attempts at reduction in other areas (George Monbiot, 2006). Aircraft emissions high in the atmosphere have a greater impact than at ground level.

Last winter’s severe storms, and strong warnings by the UN’s Panel on Climate Change, are a strong signal that the price of yet more cheap flights may turn out to be very high indeed. If aviation growth is to be curbed, a tax on aviation fuel would be a sensible and well overdue measure. At the end of the day, airlines depend on people to fill their seats – and we all need to weigh up whether the true cost is worth it.

Airport promise “broken” by Luton Council

A key noise control promise published three times in public by the operators of Luton Airport – in their revised Masterplan, Noise Fact Sheet and Planning Application – has been omitted from the planning conditions voted in by Luton Borough Council on 20th December.

Responding to public outcry about the threat of increased night noise, the airport had promised six new noise mitigations in its revised consultation documents, including a clear commitment to reduce night noise limits to 80dB by 2018. When HALE pointed out the proposed doubling of night flights between 10pm and midnight, the airport published a fact sheet which repeated the same commitment. Given the huge public NO vote to expansion plans in the consultation response, the airport brought forward the timing of this commitment to January 2015 in the draft Section 106 of its planning application.

But in the planning conditions attached to the application which was voted in by Luton Borough Council on 20th December, that vital protection has been dropped. There is a planning condition to reduce daytime noise limits, but amazingly no condition to reduce night time limits to 80dB from January 2015.

HALE believes this amounts to a clear breach of undertaking. A major commitment made repeatedly in public by the airport operator – which clearly feels able to implement it – has been dropped by the Council from the planning conditions. Either the Council is incompetent – in which case the planning decision should be called in so that it can be given more competent and independent scrutiny – or the Council is deliberately allowing the airport to set aside clear and specific commitments made in public documents upon which it based its public consultation and its planning application.

Either way, this is an absolute scandal, and HALE has written to the Council to insist that the undertaking to reduce night noise limits to 80dB in January 2015 is reflected clearly and unambiguously in the planning conditions.

LBC approves expansion plans

At a packed meeting on 20th December, half the members of Luton Borough Council’s development control committee voted to accept plans to expand Luton Airport’s capacity, with throughput to be capped at 18 million passengers per year – double the number in 2011. The other half of the members sent apologies - presumably due to the haste with which the meeting had been convened just before Christmas in order to avoid the year-old planning application from timing out – or in the case of David Franks declared an interest and withdrew from the discussion and vote.

A notable absence from the committee seats was Amy O’Callaghan, Councillor for Luton South, the ward most affected by aircraft noise. This democratic deficit did not go unnoticed by members of the public from South Luton who had attended to make their voices heard.

Objectors from local town and parish councils, campaign groups and private individuals made very clear in 5-minute verbal submissions their wide-ranging concerns including:

  • a disproportionate number of additional flights planned for late evening and early morning (doubling between 10pm and midnight)
  • back-pedalling on previous commitments by the airport to reduce the level at which night-noise fines would apply
  • the general reduction to quality of life caused by the proposal to increase numbers of flights by 60% even if each may become marginally quieter in future
  • the fact that increasing road and rail traffic would have a detrimental effect on local transport infrastructure
  • concerns that the proposals are not sustainable in the context of climate change and global warming
  • concerns that the proposals will damage the health of people living locally due to increased particulates from traffic and aircraft plus being awoken at night
  • that despite what its PR may claim, the airport already has a bad track record on noise and its Noise Action Plan is short on real measurable actions
  • that the local economy would be better served by diversification rather than by continuing to put all its economic eggs in one basket

Expert advisers retained by the Council were on hand to hear these points, and HALE has followed up on a specific omission to the planning conditions in which commitments previously made by the airport to reduce night noise violation limits have been quietly dropped.

The most unfortunate aspect of the meeting was that because objectors were barred from questioning the consultant experts, and the Councillors could not reasonably be expected to have the same understanding of the technical detail as experts from either side, the farcical situation existed in which key technical points could not be properly explored in open democratic dialogue. Such is the planning system we have created.

The voting process when it came was heart-rending: all the Councillors expressed their deep concern over the seriousness and difficulty of the decision they were about to take given on the one hand the need to do right by Luton, and on the other hand the need to do right by the concerns of the people of Luton. In the end, Luton won – and hence lost.

See the BBC news story: Council backs Luton airport expansion but minister to review


Democratic deficit day

A hastily reconvened development control meeting at Luton Borough Council today decides on the planning application for doubling the capacity of Luton Airport from 9 million to 18 million passengers per annum. But because it is being held on the last Friday before Christmas, many people who wanted to go and speak at the meeting are unable to attend. Cllr Amy O’Callaghan who represents Luton South Ward – one of the areas most affected by aircraft noise – has said in an email that she is away for Christmas. This is hardly democracy at work for her constituents. And of course the decision is being made by the Council which owns the airport in any case.

In the opinion of campaigners, this decision should not be made by airport shareholders – it should be called in for independent scrutiny. It appears to be a hugely unpopular plan: 88% of the respondents are opposed to further expansion, with only 9% in support. 75% of the public who responded to the original consultation said NO to the proposal to double the capacity of this airport. These figures indicate that local people do not want further expansion at Luton Airport – which is already running at twice the 5 million passenger capacity it asked for in its last planning application. Remember that it was Luton Council which forced the airport operators to make the application in the first place – by threatening to take away their operating concession if they did not comply. Campaigners say that this is not democracy – it’s strong-arm tactics by a desperate Council with has no vision for creating greater economic diversity in the Luton area.

Cllr Richard Thake of Hertfordshire County Council has succeeded in getting an article 25 planning order issued which prevents Luton Council from actually granting planning permission until the Secretary of State decides whether or not to call in the planning application. Campaigners agree that the scale of the proposed works are such that the application counts as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project, based on the extra capacity this would allow. If an airport expansion adds additional handling capability exceeding 10 million passengers per annum, the project is legally required to be referred to central government for determination. Experts have concluded that the Luton project falls into this category because the key test is capability, not predicted throughput. Luton Council has bought a QC opinion to support their case that this is not an NSIP, but few campaigners are convinced because, like the planning report, it appears to have been rushed through and to be very much open to question.

On the face of it, the expansion proposals fly in the face of national policy, which is to reduce the number of people affected by aircraft noise, and to avoid giving rise to adverse health effects due to noise. Reports by the World Health Organisation and the CAA confirm that aircraft noise at night is considered injurious to health, and yet the airport wants to double the flights between 10pm and midnight, and between 5 and 7am. Given its location, and the existing capacity issues on local roads and rail services, Luton Airport is operating at a scale where campaigners say that the environmental impact of further expansion is likely to cause blight rather than extra prosperity.

Best laid plans?

(Updated 14 Dec 2013)

Two crucial areas of disagreement lie at the heart of the process to determine the Luton Airport planning application. The first is whether the project counts as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (in which case it must be referred to the Secretary of State); the second is a lack of clarity relating to the noise levels governing the airport.

Legislation defining whether an airport expansion project counts as an NSIP appears to be clear: if the work would deliver capability to handle more than an extra 10 million passengers per year then the project is an NSIP and must be referred to the Secretary of State.

In the case of Luton’s expansion project, the airport operators LLAOL used a capacity report by Leigh Fisher to argue in their planning application that capacity would not be increased by more than 10 million. Luton Borough Council (LBC) commissioned a report from Chris Smith Aviation Consultancy which appeared to support this view. However, analysis of these reports by experts from LADACAN indicates that these analyses assumed similar traffic patterns to now and did not really assess the capability to deliver 10 million extra passengers per year. In their view, the infrastructure changes would definitely result in additional capability above 10 million passengers per year.

LBC has obtained the opinion of a QC on this issue. The QC argues the plans do not amount to an NSIP because there would be a planning restriction limiting capacity to 18 million passengers per year. However, campaigners argue that (a) this restriction could be lifted at some future date, making the application retrospectively an NSIP, and (b) the restriction cannot be applied until after planning permission is granted, whereas the decision re whether it is an NSIP has to be made before the application is determined.

The QC also argues that the application does not constitute an NSIP because he has seen no evidence to suggest that it is. This implies that LBC failed to pass on to him the expert analysis produced by LADACAN showing that the application does indeed class as an NSIP. For these reasons campaigners say that proceeding as if this is not an NSIP puts the applicant on very shaky ground indeed.

The second key issue is noise levels. LBC’s local plan LLA1 states that the airport may be developed provided that noise does not exceed 1999 levels. However, there is an  argument over precisely which 1999 levels were intended to act as the benchmark. On the one hand, the planning application appears to be working on the basis of 1999 levels which were predicted in 1997, whereas campaigners point out that the wording of the policy and planning inspector’s report would indicate that the actual 1999 levels should be used. These were substantially lower, particularly at night, due to a change in the mix of the aircraft fleet which occurred after the original predictions were made.

LBC commissioned a noise report from Cole Jarman which acknowledges that the 1999 levels are open to interpretation, and a letter from Cole Jarman to LBC clearly states that the decision as to how to interpret the confusion over 1999 noise levels is not a technical matter but one for the Council. Despite a formal request from LADACAN’s lawyer, the Council has not justified the basis for its interpretation of the 1999 noise levels. This means that governance of the noise environment around Luton remains open to question and lack of clarity.

Deficiencies identified in the issued planning documents appear now to have been rectified, and the documents can be downloaded from the LBC website at this link.

The planning meeting is to be held on 20th Dec at 10:00 in Luton Town Hall – anyone wishing to speak must register by 17:00 on 18th Dec by phoning 01582 546032.

Planning Committe 20 Dec

Luton Borough Council has reconvened the Development Control Committee Meeting to vote on the future of the airport. Its planning officers have recommended acceptance of plans which will double its passenger capacity and increase flights by 60%.

The public meeting will be held on Friday 20th December 2013 at 10:00 in the Council Chamber at Luton Town Hall. People who are concerned by these proposals, and who wish to draw attention to the noise, traffic and pollution impacts of expansion, and the need for stringent controls, may request a 5-minute slot to speak at the meeting.

To register to speak, contact the Development Control Committee Administrator on 01582 546032, or write to them at Luton Town Hall, Luton LU1 2BQ. The deadline for registration is 5pm on Wednesday 18th December.

The meeting will consider, on planning grounds, the proposals by Luton Airport’s operating company LLAOL for works including alterations to Airport Way, infill extensions and alterations to terminal buildings, extensions to existing mid and long term car parks, a new taxiway and extensions to the existing taxiway and aircraft parking aprons and stands, and a new multi-storey car park linked to the terminal building.

The effect of these works will be to increase the capacity of the airport, and the operator projects that the number of passengers carried per annum will increase from 10 million to 18 million by 2028, with a corresponding 58% increase in flights from 99,000 to 157,000 per year. It foresees a significant increase in flights during the early morning and late evening periods, with a projected doubling of flights between 10pm and midnight and early morning departures starting before 6am. It envisages an almost doubling of the number of dwellings within the ”aircraft noise footprint” day and night.

The “mitigations” proposed by the operators – including so-called caps on numbers of flights – have been shown by independent noise consultants and campaign group experts to be likely to have little impact on controlling noise, and far more stringent planning controls in the form of a tough section 106 agreement would be required.

The papers relevant to the meeting can be downloaded from LBC’s website by clicking the following link: Planning meeting papers

For background on some of the more contentious issues, see Best laid plans

Spanish fly

Spanish infrastructure group AENA, along with AXA Private Equity, have purchased the operating concession for Luton Airport from Abertis, a separate Spanish infrastructure group which has decided to divest itself of airports and concentrate on toll roads.

AENA’s Executive Chairman has said “We aim to substantially build up London Luton in consultation with all its stakeholders.”

In response, HALE has issued the following statement: “AENA is no doubt referring to the planning application submitted in January to double passenger capacity and increase the number of planes by 60%. Because Luton Airport is so close to big towns with crowded roads and trains, this plan has already met strong headwinds. We look forward as local stakeholders to consulting with AENA about reducing the already substantial environmental impact, rather than making it worse.”

Luton Airport is “in denial” over night flight plans

The PR machine at Luton Airport is now in a complete spin over night flights, according to local campaigners. The Airport is now strenuously denying the flight projections contained in its own planning application.

In a new “Fact” Sheet described as “a fully referenced narrative on noise which provides complete and transparent answers to the salient questions based on factual data compiled by aviation experts and noise technicians” Luton Airport denies that it is planning to double the number of flights between 10pm and midnight, saying recent press statements are “untrue”.

However, graphs in its own planning application, compiled by independent aviation experts and noise consultants Bickerdike Allen, clearly show the number of flights in the 10pm to midnight time slot set to rise from 17 to 35 on average – ie there WOULD be a doubling of flights in that period, as shown below with annotations:

Table N3-1

Table N3-3

Similarly, the “Fact” Sheet claims that the Airport will only be adding two additional flights between 5am and 6am on a busy summer day, whereas its planning application clearly shows that on average they plan to add SIX extra flights between 5am and 6am.

The “Fact” Sheet was issued to coincide with the handing-in to Luton Town Hall of a 1,000-signature petition signed by residents of Luton, Stevenage, St Albans, Hemel Hempstead, Harpenden and villages all around Luton Airport protesting against the proposed increases in night flights and the resultant reduction of “night” around Luton to just 5 hours. The petition calls for Luton Borough Council to apply planning controls to limit the number of night flights from Luton Airport to 2011 levels, and the campaign is supported by many people who live in Luton itself.

Speaking for the campaign alliance behind Thursday’s rally, Andrew Lambourne said “Luton Airport is in complete denial about its devastating plans for night flights. Their own data shows a planned increase from 17 to 35 flights on average between 10pm and midnight, yet they are saying it is untrue to call this a doubling. Well by anybody else’s arithmetic that IS a doubling of flights between 10pm and midnight – that is what the planning application says. Are they now withdrawing that aspect of their plans? They cannot have it both ways.”

The row comes at a time of increased focus nationally on expansion plans for airports all around London, and significant concerns are being raised about the impacts on public health and basic human rights. The World Health Organisation states in relation to night noise “40 to 55 dB: Adverse health effects are observed among the exposed population. Many people have to adapt their lives to cope with the noise at night. Vulnerable groups are more severely affected.” Similarly the Environmental Research and Consultancy Department of the CAA states “It is especially important to limit noise during the earlier part of the night when people are falling asleep” and “just one additional awakening per night induced by aircraft noise has an adverse effect on people’s health and wellbeing.” Yet Luton Airport is planning to move in exactly the opposite direction.

“The Airport MD claims there will be massive economic benefit from expanding Luton Airport – 5,100 more jobs, and a more vibrant local economy.” continued Andrew Lambourne. “If we cannot trust what they say about night flights, we cannot trust what they say about jobs – experts say these jobs figures are probably overstated by a factor of 5, which would be a cruel hoax on local people. Given the proposed doubling of passenger numbers and night flights, a tired workforce fighting its way along ever-more congested local roads is not going to benefit anybody’s economy.”