Back-to-back sessions at inquiry stir Stansted fears

Campaigners fighting a second runway at Stansted Airport have reacted furiously to what they call the "steamrollering" of next year's public inquiry.

Under the revised inquiry procedure rules introduced in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, different subjects will be examined simultaneously in separate rooms.

Designed to speed up inquiries into major infrastructure projects, the Stansted hearing marks the first time that the procedure will be put to use. A DCLG spokesman explained: "New rules were brought in to prevent public inquiries from dragging on for years and forcing local voices out because of unnecessary delays."

He insisted that the inspector has ensured that key examinations do not conflict in the timetable and that no party will be disadvantaged by the inquiry process.

The procedure is revealed in a note from the Planning Inspectorate issued ahead of the pre-inquiry meeting scheduled for next week. The inquiry into the UK's biggest ever airport planning application is likely to be heard in just six months under the revised arrangements.

Campaigners against the runway reacted angrily to the move. Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE) said back-to-back hearings "severely compromise the community's ability to participate fully because resources will be stretched beyond the limit".

Campaign director Carol Barbone maintained: "This route is completely unacceptable for an inquiry where there are so many complex interrelationships between one topic and another."

She added: "Both BAA and the government know full well that this approach will make it impossible for SSE and others to keep abreast of all the evidence and cross-examine BAA. On the other hand, BAA and its team of five senior barristers could take this in its stride."

The group maintained that the government is trying to push the project through before the next general election because both the Tories and Liberal Democrats have said they would scrap it.

Uttlesford District Council chief executive John Mitchell commented: "We have grave concerns that the views of the community may not be adequately represented in all areas covered by the public inquiry and we will be making this case in the strongest possible terms at the pre-inquiry meeting."

At the end of the inquiry, the inspector will announce the date he expects to submit his report to ministers for the final decision.

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