The expansion of Leeds Bradford airport appears to have been put on hold after the government paused plans to increase passenger numbers from 4 million to 7 million a year by 2030.
The plans were given conditional approval by Leeds city council in February despite widespread opposition from local MPs, residents and environmental groups.
Campaigners argued the expansion would make a mockery of efforts to tackle the climate crisis and undermine the government’s credibility ahead of a key climate conference later this year.
On Tuesday, they said they were told that the government had issued a direction to Leeds city council preventing councillors from granting planning permission without special authorisation.
The direction – set out in section 31 of the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2015 – will give further time to Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, to consider whether to formally “call in” the planning application.
As secretary of state, he has powers to take the decision-making power on a planning application out of the hands of the local planning authority by calling it in for his own determination.
If a planning application is called in, there will be a public inquiry chaired by a planning inspector, or lawyer, who would make a recommendation to the secretary of state. Jenrick can reject these recommendations if he wishes and would take the final decision.
Jenrick recently used the powers to intervene in plans to build a new coal mine off the Cumbrian coast.
The same lawyers who took on the government over the mine wrote to Jenrick asking him to do the same with the Leeds Bradford airport
“[The] expansion would commit the UK to decades of increased carbon emissions, against the Climate Change Committee’s advice,” barrister Estelle Dehon argued earlier this year, acting on behalf of the Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport (Galba). “As with the proposed Cumbrian coalmine, allowing this in the year we host Cop26 undermines the UK’s ambition to lead on the climate crisis.”
In a statement, Galba said: “Over the last few weeks we have had environmental groups, community groups, MPs, scientists and literally thousands of local people, writing directly to [Jenrick] asking for a public inquiry, and many more thousands have signed a petition. We hope that the delay is a sign that [he] is taking those requests very seriously. Leeds city council has refused to accept the responsibility to safeguard the health of the planet and future generations and a consequence the ball is in [Jenrick’s] court. He must take that responsibility and order a public inquiry.”
Supporters of the project say the airport expansion would boost the local economy by hundreds of millions of pounds and support thousands of new jobs.
However, critics dispute the figures and say it would lock the region into a diminishing carbon intensive economic future. A report from the New Economics Foundation, commissioned by campaigners, found that there would be little if any economic benefit, adding that if the impact of more people holidaying abroad rather than in the UK was factored in, the expansion would actually be a drain on the economy.
Leeds Bradford is one of several airports – including Stansted, Southampton and Bristol – that are attempting to get backing for expansion proposals in the coming months.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been contacted for comment, as well as Leeds city council.