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.