Southampton airport expansion and the climate crisis

Response from Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust's CEO on the decision to approve the planning application to extend the runway at Southampton Airport.

In the early hours of this morning, the planning application to extend the runway at Southampton Airport was approved by Eastleigh Borough Council [1] .  This came after 36 hours of meetings, first the Local Area Committee (who rejected the proposal) and then Full Council, all streamed live via Teams over several days.  More than 200 people made representations and the passion on both sides was genuine.  The Trust joined those objecting to the expansion on environmental grounds.

Eastleigh Borough Council is one of many local authorities that has declared a Climate Emergency, the declaration having been unanimously supported back in 2019 [2].  Southampton Airport is one of seven across England seeking to expand [3] in a bid to boost economic growth as part of post-Covid recovery.  

I listened to many hours of the planning meeting, the presentations, questions, discussions, and debates.  I was struck by the passion on both sides, but above all I was struck by the inherent conflict of the situation.

Those speaking against the plans to extend the runway to accommodate larger planes and more flights were rightly concerned about noise, pollution, congestion, and of course the climate emergency.  Those speaking in favour of the airport feared its closure, wanted to be able to go on holiday without having to drive all the way to Gatwick, supported the need for job creation and wanted to see the local economy prosper.  The entire business community was united in its support for the plans which would facilitate growth across the region. 

But herein lies the rub. How do we square all this when we know we are in a climate crisis?  How do we facilitate a genuine ‘green recovery’ to support a proper sustainable economy rather than business as usual?  Almost everyone in favour of the airport expansion recognised that we have a climate crisis, but equally said that this is a national and global issue and can’t be dealt with locally. 

The planning system is rigged against taking bold steps to tackle the climate and nature crisis. It is almost impossible for local authorities to refuse planning applications due to the inbuilt presumptions in favour of development, economic growth, and the concept of the ‘planning balance’.  When the economic benefits of a development are weighed up against the disbenefits (e.g. to the environment or public health), the usual outcome is for some form of mitigation to be put in place to compensate for those disbenefits.  Of course, mitigation is often woefully inadequate.  Let’s face it, if it worked, we wouldn’t be in the middle of a climate and nature crisis (and as an aside, this is why we are keen to promote genuine nature-based solutions, a subject for another blog).  Furthermore, the climate crisis is not a material consideration when it comes to local planning decisions. 

With the Sixth Carbon Budget due soon [4] the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has advised government to reduce UK emissions by 78% by 2035 relative to 1990. The CCC’s advice on aviation is clear: its privileged position must be addressed, emissions from flying must not be allowed to grow and the industry should adopt similar emissions cuts to other sectors of the economy [5].  Is this the reason that so many airport expansion plans are being rushed through before June?

Listening to the 14 brave Councillors who spoke with such passion against the plans, I could sense their frustration. They challenged [6] the expansion on environmental and climate grounds, going against their planning officers’ recommendations and the planning guidance which steered them very firmly towards approval.

But in the end the vote went the other way with 22 councillors in favour.  I was hoping that the local authority who had been one of the first to declare a Climate Emergency in Hampshire would show real leadership in this situation – either rejecting the plans or deferring them until such time as the Sixth Carbon Budget and the Environment Bill are in place, forcing a far more robust approach by the airport to both decarbonisation and environmental net gain.

However, listening to the speeches of those who opposed the plans I was struck by how many councillors were genuinely and seriously concerned about the state of our planet and what this means for future generations.  It does feel as if the tide is turning. 

This year, we do have some real opportunities to build on this momentum and push for change at all levels.

Kickstarting the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, 2021 has been heralded as the global ‘super year’ for nature and climate action due to major meetings and decision-making moments coinciding: The UK is hosting the UN Convention on Climate Change COP 26 and the G7 Summit, and the Convention on Biological Diversity COP 15 is taking place in China this year. 

And at a local level we have the largest ever series of local elections in history coming up on May 6th. We need more people in local government like the 14 Eastleigh councillors who spoke up for nature, for climate, and for people’s health and wellbeing. Councillors who understand that a strong economy depends on a healthy environment and that growth at all costs will cost us all in the end.

The expansion of Southampton Airport will now go ahead, but I am heartened by the opportunities that forthcoming policy and legislative changes will bring – such as more rapid cuts in emissions and greater investment in nature’s recovery.  I am sick of the false dichotomy that is often played out with the economy and the environment being pitted against each other.  We need to find better ways of facilitating human prosperity without damaging the planet. This is the challenge of our time and we need to figure out the answers together. 

And finally, I will be voting in my local council elections [7] for those who want to act on the nature and climate emergency and help create a better future for us all, please make sure you do so too.

References

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hampshire-56701235

[2] https://www.eastleigh.gov.uk/latest-news/council-declares-climate-emergency

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/08/climate-campaigners-call-for-halt-to-regional-uk-airports-expansion

[4] The Climate Change Act requires the government to set a new Carbon Budget every five years, following the advice of the Climate Change Committee. The Sixth Carbon Budget must be legislated by June 2021. https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/sixth-carbon-budget/

[5] https://www.aef.org.uk/2020/12/18/stop-expanding-airports-include-aviation-in-carbon-budgets-and-dont-let-airlines-off-the-hook-with-carbon-offsets-ccc-has-advised/

[6] 13 objected and 1 abstained. 

[7] https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/blog/sienna-somers/why-are-local-elections-important-wildlife