Bristol Airport’s expansion ambitions – predicted to grow the South West economy by £1.4bn over the next decade – have been thrown out by North Somerset Council following a five-hour debate.
Airport bosses had been looking to extend the site’s passenger terminus and plane taxiways as they believe it will hit maximum capacity by 2021.
They argued the works would enable passenger numbers to grow from 10 million a year to 12 million, while also creating hundreds of new jobs for the area.
However, the proposal provoked public protests from nearby residents and environmental pressure groups – and councillors sympathised, voting 18-7 against the expansion following lengthy discussions.
Council Leader Don Davies said: “The airport currently handles just over eight million passengers and can still expand to the 10 million passengers a year limit it already has, so more people will still be able to fly from there and the number of people who work there should not be affected.
“What the committee has considered is that the detrimental effect of the expansion of the airport on this area and the wider impact on the environment outweighs the narrower benefits to airport expansion.
“I know some people will be upset by this decision and I am sure that we can reconsider it in future when the airline industry has decarbonised and the public transport links to the airport are far stronger.”
Councillors rejected the application after saying some environmental issues had not been properly resolved, while insisting the economic benefits would not outweigh the environmental harm.
The decision has prompted a mixed response from different sections of the community.
CBI Deputy Regional Director Ben Rhodes described the news as a bitter blow for the South West environment as well as its business community.
He said: “This news is a real blow to Bristol and the wider South West.
“This project would help further extend the reach of our region and help put us in the shop window of the world. Simply put this project would help create jobs, growth and investment in the South West and we should not put it at risk.
“We are now left in the perverse situation that people are driving out of our region to fly. That is bad for our economy and bad for our environment.
“In a post-Brexit world we need schemes like this and this awful news will hurt many businesses in the South West. On a day that HS2 is announced for the North we have rejected a major infrastructure scheme in the South West. The CBI believes we must not be left behind.”
And Raphael Herzog, Chair of the Bristol Hoteliers Association, warned the hospitality industry in particular could be hit especially hard by the decision.
He said: “A thriving, and competitive, airport is vital to the economic prosperity of the region.
“Of course, we recognise the long-term aim of protecting our planet and reducing carbon emissions and appreciate that airport expansion plans will always provoke strong political debate.
“While it is important to take steps towards being more environment friendly, it needs to be done in the right way and not stopping economy growth in the city. There is already a lot of unknown with Brexit and the region should be open to planning that will generate more travellers and therefore cash in the economy.”
However, opponents – 8,000 of whom wrote objections to the council – have spoken out in support of the decision.
Professor John Adams, of the Stop Bristol Airport Expansion pressure group, said: “This is probably the most important decision the council will ever have to make and we applaud our councillors for standing up against the airport and its owners, who have thrown vast resources at the expansion plans without regard for the damage they would cause.”
And David Worskett, Chair of the Avonside Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, said: “The economic benefits are significantly overstated while the disbenefits, applicable right across the West of England, but with the most serious consequences for our sub-region, were significantly understated.”
However, because the council’s decision goes against the recommendation of planning officers, the decision must still be ratified at a subsequent meeting.
If the decision stands, Bristol Airport – and its owner Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan – will then have up to six months to appeal the decision.
Airport CEO Dave Rees – who recently told Business Leader air travel is ‘a fundamental force for good to support business, education and inbound tourism’ – has already refused to rule out an appeal, while insisting ‘there are potential options for us’.