Bristol Airport vs Environmental Campaigners (BAAN)
‘None of us can predict when the causes we support will capture the public imagination, and our once-lonely quests become popular crusades’ Paul Rogat Loeb
When Bristol Airport Action Network (BAAN) formed in April 2019 to fight Bristol Airport’s planning application to expand by two million passengers a year, we had little idea how much work this would take or if we would win. All previous applications by Bristol Airport had been quickly waved through, although strong resistance had been shown by committed local residents.
We were a group of campaigners, made up of members from Extinction Rebellion groups in the south-west region, twenty-seven North Somerset parishes (Bristol Airport is based in North Somerset), Stop Bristol Airport Expansion (SBAx) and aviation scientists and academics.
We didn’t like what was proposed by the owners of Bristol Airport, who are the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan (the sixth biggest pension fund in the world with assets of nearly £200 billion). Their proposed two million extra passengers a year equated to about 23,000 flights a year (including 4000 unregulated night flights between 12.30 am and 6.30 am), 10,000 extra car journeys a day and a large car park on the Greenbelt. It would also have meant massive amounts of additional carbon pumped into the high atmosphere which would warm our world even more; climate scientists have calculated that it would be up to one million tonnes (just for the expansion) a year. By way of comparison; the whole internal emissions of Bristol are 1.6m tonnes.
Thankfully, these plans were stopped in their tracks by the North Somerset Planning Committee on 10th February when they rejected the planning application (although that still has to be ratified at a future meeting as the councillors had voted against their own planning officer’s recommendation). However, as the vote was 18 to 8 against the plans, this is unlikely to change.
How did this happen? In retrospect, one of the biggest turning points was that the political make up of North Somerset Council changed dramatically in the May 2019 local elections to become much less conservative dominated and therefore less ‘airport friendly’. In addition to this, North Somerset declared a climate emergency in Feb 2019 and in June 2019 the UK committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. All these changes reset the context from one of probable failure to one of pushing against an opening door.
At that first BAAN meeting, we decided to try and do two things initially; firstly to engage as many local people who were directly affected as possible. Generally, the residents who are impacted by Bristol Airport were not hopeful about changing the plans as they had been trying to slow down the airport’s relentless expansion for over 20 years without success. However, 12 months later, after numerous ‘town-hall meetings’, door knocking sessions and one-to-one discussions, large swathes of local people had become massively motivated and involved to the extent that there were now over 8000 objections on the planning website, which added up to over one million words.
Secondly, we also began to write to the planners asking questions to ensure that important issues were properly considered. As we had hoped, ‘delay was our friend’ as the huge problems with the climate (and the impact of aviation) began to emerge. Despite the policy changes being introduced at local and national level, we thought there were significant legal issues around climate change that were not being considered adequately by the airport so we crowd-funded for legal advice from an experienced barrister. This gave us a valuable legal opinion confirming that the 27 voting councillors on the planning committee in North Somerset could legally turn down this expansion if they chose to do so.
We received a major knock-back at the end of January when the council’s own planning officers recommended acceptance of the airport’s plans in what we considered was a highly one-sided report. Some commentators said the report ‘could have been written by the airport themselves’. However, campaigners and local people were not deterred and redoubled their efforts in the last two weeks before the application was due to be heard. Amongst many other actions, a three day vigil was held outside the Town Hall where the decision was to be made and hundreds of people from local XR groups came with creative and media-friendly actions. We continued to encourage formal objections by residents and were hugely encouraged by their support and enthusiasm.
Finally the day of the decision arrived; at a very long, noisy and tense meeting, the North Somerset councillors agreed (by 18 to 8) to reject the application. The speeches that were made that night were of very high calibre, often very emotional and heartfelt, but always factual and scientific. The Councillors spoke of their commitment to the well-being of their residents and not to some far-off company and it’s profits. The overriding message was that we cannot carry on with ‘business as usual’. Against overwhelming odds, and with very few resources except tenacity and shared compassionate values, the campaigners had helped to facilitate this win at this vital stage in the process.
What happens next? The airport may well appeal but we would ask them to listen to the comments from North Somerset residents on the NSC website, 83% of who objected, and to the impassioned voices of the elected councillors. We ask them to abide by this democratic process, hear the strong voice of local residents and not to appeal.
Even if they do, the process will take many months to work through and meanwhile the national policy provisions continue to move in our direction. For example, ‘Aviation 2050’; the forthcoming government policy document due out later this year, is almost inevitably going to aim to curtail the growth of air travel so we are hopeful, although this does not mean that everything will be fine. We instead offer you this account of the many uncertainties we faced and overcame.
Tarisha Finnegan-Clarke (Co-ordinator of Bristol Airport Action Network-BAAN) and Stephen Clarke (Green Party Councillor for Southville and member of BAAN).