How we did it: Securing airport expansion permission

Mayoral opposition had to be overcome to obtain approval for London City Airport's expansion plan, David Dewar reports.

Airport expansion promoters: (left-to-right) Duncan Field, head of planning, Norton Rose Fulbright; Sean Bashforth, director, Quod; and Rachel Ness, director of infrastructure, strategy and planning, London City Airport
Airport expansion promoters: (left-to-right) Duncan Field, head of planning, Norton Rose Fulbright; Sean Bashforth, director, Quod; and Rachel Ness, director of infrastructure, strategy and planning, London City Airport

PROJECT: London City Airport Development Programme

ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED: London City Airport, Quod, Norton Rose Fulbright

Securing planning consent for an airport project is never likely to be a straightforward task, especially when the airport in question is in the middle of a city like London. Consequently, the promoters of the London City Airport expansion had to navigate a huge consultation process, a mayoral objection and two public inquiries. The project, which secured consent last July, also had to go through a complex compulsory purchase process.

The expansion was necessary to address three key constraints, says Rachel Ness, director of infrastructure, strategy and planning at London City Airport – the terminal was too small; the runway was full at peak hours; and many of the aircraft stands were not big enough for some of the latest types of aircraft. "Our tiny terminal was originally designed to manage just under two million passengers per annum, but it is now handling closer to 4.5 million, so it is really under strain," adds Ness.

Cumulatively, these issues meant that the airport could not operate to its permitted level of 111,000 flight numbers per annum, says Ness. The London City Airport Development Programme was set up to address these constraints by building a new taxiway to release extra runway capacity, installing new aircraft stands and extending the terminal.

A planning application was submitted to the London Borough of Newham in July 2013. Sean Bashforth, director at planning consultancy Quod – planning agent for the project – says the airport worked closely with the borough’s officers, particularly on addressing the impacts of the scheme on the many residents in a densely-populated and growing area. "We always knew that noise and the impact on regeneration were going to be key issues," he says. "Because of where we were, we ended up consulting about 20,000 people, which is probably unprecedented for a planning application."

A principal objective of the expansion project was to enable the airport to attract a more modern and quieter fleet of aircraft. "A key part of the consultation process was explaining how the new aircraft, which had more efficient jet engines, were quieter than the existing fleet per aircraft movement," says Bashforth.

With support for the project from Newham Council, all was going well, according to the participants. However, in March 2015 former London mayor Boris Johnson directed that the borough should refuse the scheme on noise impact grounds, against the advice of his planning officers. "It was a nasty surprise," Ness recalls. "We had gone to great lengths to work with officers throughout the process, ensuring that we understood a list of concerns, and we worked diligently through all of those."

Following Newham’s refusal at Johnson’s behest, the airport appealed the decision, prompting a planning inquiry. This re-opened all the relevant planning issues, which "required extensive preparation of evidence", says Duncan Field, head of planning at advising law firm Norton Rose Fulbright.

Once it became clear that the approval process was likely to be more protracted than originally envisaged, the airport, as a statutory undertaker, decided to issue three compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) for land the scheme required. The land, at neighbouring King George V Dock, was owned by the Greater London Authority (GLA) and the Docklands Light Railway (DLR).

"With the mayor’s opposition, there was concern as to whether negotiations with the landowners could be concluded successfully," says Field. Following contact made with the landowners, a CPO was published in October 2015 and submitted to the Department for Transport for approval.

Field says pursuing a CPO inquiry "focused the minds" of the parties involved on reaching an agreement more quickly, and it was duly reached with the DLR. Johnson had also opposed the CPO, but following the election of Sadiq Khan in 2016, the GLA withdrew its objection. "So pursuing a CPO was an initiative worth taking", Field maintains.

"What expedited things hugely was having a single legal practice handling planning and land-related issues," says Ness. "That enabled us to deliver the CPOs at an amazing speed without compromising the robustness of the process."

In the event, the CPO was granted by transport secretary Chris Grayling shortly after both he and communities secretary Sajid Javid had also jointly issued planning permission for the scheme in August 2016. Their consent decision letter said the scheme would have "significant benefits in employment and increased economic activity" that would "outweigh the harm" caused by increased noise.

Norton Rose Fulbright’s work on the project was recognised at this year’s Planning Awards, where the team won the prize for law firm of the year. Judges praised their "level of complex legal work" for the airport expansion, in a "very challenging political context".

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