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Stop Stansted Expansion ready to rise again and resist new runways

By Herts & Essex Observer  |  Posted: June 11, 2013

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JUST three years ago, after all three main political parties pledged to block any new runways in the south east, Stop Stansted Expansion considered disbanding.

Today, aviation growth is back at the top of the political agenda and in the past month the Independent Transport Commission has suggested the Uttlesford airport is a viable option as the UK's new hub and leading London architect Make has gone a step further, formulating dramatic plans for a four-runway replacement for Heathrow in the Essex countryside.

And while London Mayor Boris Johnson's preference is for a Thames estuarial airport, dubbed Boris Island, he too has been pushing the case for Stansted expansion as the next best option.

So far Manchester Airports Group (MAG) which bought Stansted from BAA in a £1.5 billion deal earlier this year, has been cautious in its response to the suggestions being put to the Airports Commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, which is currently considering the best way forward for the county.

MAG's official line is: “The Airports Commission has a vital role to play in exploring all viable options for additional airport capacity in the UK, including hub capacity.

“Other parties will be putting forward their views as this debate continues, which the commission will carefully consider. MAG will be submitting further evidence to the Airports Commission in July.”

SSE has also been circumspect in its response to the growing focus on Stansted, but in an exclusive interview, chairman Peter Sanders explains the protest group's current stance.

First he tackled the swift turnaround in fortunes: "Not only were we celebrating a great victory three years ago, we were actively considering disbanding SSE. Fortunately, we decided not to, but we honestly didn't expect to be back working at almost full throttle in such a short space of time.

"It just shows the power of the aviation lobby. In 2010 all three main political parties came out against any extra runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. The lobbyists then set to work and put enormous pressure on the Government to change its 'no expansion' policy.

"The government eventually buckled and decided to set up an independent commission to look into the whole issue of the UK's airport capacity. The Airports Commission - to give it its proper title - has been asked to consider whether or not there is a need for more runway capacity and, if so, to recommend where this should be. So everything is back in play and all sorts of people are coming forward with their pet airport expansion projects."

He believes the Airports Commission could decide no new, extra runways are required: "The UK as a whole isn't short of runway capacity and, as we know, Stansted is operating at only about half of its capacity.

"However there is a capacity problem at Heathrow and that's really what has sparked off this whole issue. We believe that the Heathrow capacity problem can be overcome, but if the commission disagrees it will no doubt consider expansion at Heathrow as one of its options."

However he conceded there was huge opposition for another Heathrow runway, putting the focus on Stansted: "Gatwick, Luton and Birmingham are also in the firing line, not to mention the idea of a new airport in the Thames estuary, Boris Island or whatever you care to call it.

"The commission won't make its final recommendations until after the next general election, two years from now, and it will then be up to the government of the day. The commission will however be making an interim report at the end of this year and this is likely to include a shortlist of airport expansion options."

Stansted growth is expected to be an option and Mr Sanders admitted: "There are two main risks for Stansted. The commission could decide that Stansted should have a second runway to cope with demand that can't be handled by Heathrow.

"The other risk is that the commission could decide that Stansted should become a four-runway hub airport to replace Heathrow. Boris Johnson and a few others seem to think that might be a good idea.

"We certainly don't and I doubt that anyone locally wants to see Stansted become twice the size of Heathrow. Even one extra runway would make Stansted as big as today's Heathrow, which is what we fought so hard against just a few years ago."

He said: "The commission is still gathering evidence and SSE is fully engaged in that process. So far we've made four separate submissions to the commission, each dealing with a different aspect of the airport capacity question, and we're currently working on our fifth submission.

"Later this month we have another meeting with Sir Howard Davies, the commission's chairman, and in early July we have been invited to give oral evidence at the commission's first public hearing, which is to be held in Manchester. So, the current phase of our campaign is directed to the commission, doing everything we can to minimise the risk of major expansion at Stansted."

And if the worst happens for the campaigners and Stansted makes the shortlist, he pledged: "We're obviously hoping that won't happen but make no mistake, SSE will be up for the fight. I am sure we would again have the overwhelming support of the local community and would be able to see off the threat of Stansted becoming another Heathrow, or even worse."

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