Residents welcome Commissioners’ stand on public inquiry

Residents have welcomed the tough stand taken by the Planning Appeals Commission which has halted the public inquiry into the proposed runway extension at George Best Belfast City Airport.

In a highly unusual move, the Commission has refused to go any further with the inquiry until the Department of the Environment obtains more robust and complete noise-related environmental data from the airport.

The Department’s Planning Service had suggested the airport could submit further information once the inquiry hearings were underway, but the Commission has refused to accept this proposal, making it clear this could give rise to an undue delay as in the Sprucefield public inquiry.

Reacting to the news, Dr Liz Fawcett, Chair of the Belfast City Airport Watch Steering Group, said:

“We are really glad that the Commission has stood its ground against a shameful proposal by the Planning Service which would have given a really unfair advantage to the airport.

“Had the airport been allowed to submit further information at the last minute, residents and other objectors would have had scant time to scrutinise it properly and we would have been at a real disadvantage.

“We’re also glad that the Commission has seen the patent flaws in the noise data submitted to date by the airport – information which was heavily criticised by the Civil Aviation Authority in a report commissioned and initially suppressed by the Planning Service.”

The detailed Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) report was heavily critical of vital noise information submitted by the airport in support of its plan. In its report, the CAA, which is the UK’s official aviation regulator:

  • took the airport to task for failing to provide sufficient detail on its future air traffic forecasts in stark contrast to other UK airports making similar planning applications
  • concluded that the methodology used to calculate the likely additional noise impact resulting from a runway extension was misleading and had seriously underestimated the potential scale of the problem
  • highlighted the fact that, if the runway extension went ahead, there would be little to prevent huge aeroplanes, such as A310 Airbuses and Boeing 757s, from using the airport
  • criticised the airport for assuming it would be flouting the current official cap on its passenger numbers by nearly one million more passengers than is actually permitted under the airport’s existing planning agreement with the Planning Service

The Department of the Environment and the Planning Service initially resisted requests to publish the CAA’s report, which was completed in November 2009, on the basis that it was an ‘internal’ document. Its damning contents eventually came to light in March this year.

Belfast City Airport Watch opposes the runway extension proposal because an extended runway would enable planes to carry larger loads of passengers and fuel, leading to heavier aircraft and greater levels of noise. The proposal would also enable the airport to greatly expand its operations.

Both these points were supported by the CAA report which states that, in terms of the proposed runway length alone, it would be possible to operate larger aircraft from the extended runway, possibly with some adaptations to ground infrastructure.

In its letter to the Planning Service informing it of its decision to delay the inquiry, the Commission also refers to the need for fuller information on comments received from objectors and supporters to the airport’s application. In a response to a Freedom of Information request by BCAW, the Planning Service recently revealed that 2,209 of the 2,242 “letters of support” it received with regard to the application were actually postcards.

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