(Updated 8 Dec 2013)
Two crucial issues lie unresolved at the heart of the process to determine the 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 an apparent ambiguity relating to the noise levels applying to the airport.
Legislation is clear in defining whether an airport expansion project counts as an NSIP: if the work would deliver capability to handle more than an extra 10 million passengers per year then the project 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 the development would indeed result in the capability to deliver 10 million extra passengers per year. Hence the application should be treated as an NSIP.
Largely as a result of assiduous correspondence by Cllr Richard Thake of Herts County Council on this same issue, LBC postponed the November planning meeting and engaged a QC to review the capacity assessment and the provisions of the Planning Act 2008. We also understand from Herts County Council that the Commissioner for Local Government has exercised his power to issue a holding direction preventing LBC from granting planning permission – even if the application still goes to committee.
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 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 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, but does not explain why it then goes on to choose the higher noise threshold when checking if the permitted development rights would be contravened. Hence the basis for its conclusions is open to question.
The current position is therefore that LBC has been requested to clarify the legal basis for its position on both the above issues, before another planning meeting is called. These requests appear to have been ignored.
At the same time, deficiencies have been identified in the issued planning documents, which need to be corrected. In particular the erroneous statement was made that no submission had been received from the key North Herts District Council in response to the planning application. Also, campaign groups which submitted detailed responses have also pointed out that these were not summarised in an open and democratic way in the planning document, and have requested proper summaries.
Watch this space…