27 November 2002

Judge says airport decision 'irrational'

By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent

The Government's billion-pound plans for the expansion of airports were in disarray yesterday after the High Court ruled that ministers had acted irrationally in excluding Gatwick from their thinking.

A judge backed claims from groups in Kent and Essex that the consultation process was flawed and ordered the Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling, to reconsider the options. Mr Justice Maurice Kay, sitting in London, said Mr Darling's decision to leave out the possibility of expansion at Gatwick in Sussex was "irrational and unfair".

The consultation process, which began in July and was due to end on Saturday, is estimated to have cost millions of pounds, including the £100,000 bill for the legal action which must now be met by the Government.

Aviation experts said including Gatwick as an option for expansion in the South-east would have a knock-on effect on other regions in the consultation.

Mr Justice May said ministers had made a mistake by leaving out Gatwick. He said: "Precisely how the Secretary of State goes about remedying that defect ... is a matter for him." The Government said it was considering all options. It could issue supplementary
consultation papers to avoid having to start the consultation process again.

The ruling was a victory for Essex County Council, Kent County Council, Medway District Council and local residents opposing the expansion of Stansted airport in Essex or the option of a new airport at Cliffe on the Thames estuary in Kent.

A spokesman for the Strategic Special Interest Aviation Group, which represents councils affected by the consultation, said the decision threw "everything into confusion" and raised the possibility of extra runways at Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick. Aviation experts believe some expansion at Stansted is inevitable but Cliffe is a non-starter.

In 1979, the airport authorities agreed with West Sussex County Council not to construct a second runway at Gatwick before 2019. The Government said in its consultation paper that it would not try to overturn the agreement and a new runway would not therefore open before 2024, too late to be of use for the 30-year period covered by the paper.