Fight or flight? How our network helped stop a climate-wrecking project

While the UK government claims to be committed to reducing emissions, more and more climate-wrecking projects like airport expansions keep rearing their heads. But that doesn’t mean we should accept it. Find out how campaigners helped to pressure Leeds Bradford Airport to withdraw their airport expansion planning application.
  Published:  28 Apr 2022    |      4 minute read

The UK government has a target to cut emissions by 78% by 2035, but around the UK airports are trying to expand. In 2017, aviation was responsible for emitting almost 900 million tonnes of CO2. Yet, despite the local and global impacts, airport expansions are still on local and national agendas. It sends a confusing message. The Climate Change Committee has recommended to government that there is "no net expansion" at UK airports. The message is clear: we can’t fight climate change by pursuing airport expansions.

Here’s the story of how campaigners and groups, including Friends of the Earth groups across West Yorkshire, helped to pressure one airport to withdraw its planning application.

What’s so wrong with airport expansion?

There’s no denying that air travel is enjoyed by UK residents. In 2019, 92 million people boarded planes out of the UK, with over half leaving our isles for a holiday. In 2020, when the pandemic hit, we saw numbers reduce by 75%. Demand for air travel is slowly growing, though not yet reaching pre-pandemic level. But even if demand matched pre-pandemic levels, it’s important to remember that just 15% of the UK’s population takes the majority (70%) of all flights. Bigger airports would mainly serve the interests of a tiny proportion of frequent flyers.

The climate impact of airport expansion is significant. Aviation is a key source of carbon emissions, linked to the warming of the planet, which means more extreme weather, increased wildfires, loss of habitat for wildlife, food shortages and more.

Dirty airplane in beautiful blue sky, emitting black smoke
Credit: Documerica via Unsplash

Local people who live near airports are exposed to air pollution, which is one of the UK's biggest killers and causes up to 36,000 early deaths in the UK every year. Dirty air has also been linked to cancers, worsening asthma and even dementia.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the noise pollution from aviation is intense. There’s no escaping the noise from air travel. If you live near an airport, you’re more likely to experience sleep issues, cardiovascular diseases from stress, and cognitive impairment from intermittent but regular and ongoing disturbance.

So it's not surprising that when Leeds Bradford Airport submitted a planning application to expand their airport that campaigners, local residents and groups sprang into action.

Pressuring Leeds Bradford Airport to halt expansion plans

Convincing an airport to withdraw its expansion application is no easy feat. The campaign to halt the expansion was led by Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport (GALBA), a community of West Yorkshire citizens concerned with the impact an expansion would have. Many groups and organisations supported GALBA to fight for their shared cause, including Friends of the Earth groups across West Yorkshire. Over the course of 2 years, groups, campaigners and organisations mobilised to pressure local authorities, MPs, government and councillors to stop the airport expansion.

Key moments of the campaign

  • May 2020: Leeds Bradford Airport submits a planning application to expand the airport.
  • February 2021: GALBA send a comprehensive objection and a legal letter to Leeds City Council’s Plans Panel outlining legal concerns about the expansion.
  • February 2021: GALBA, Leeds Friends of the Earth and numerous local groups and residents make representations to the Plans Panel. After an 8.5-hour meeting, the council confirms approval of the Leeds Bradford airport planning application.
  • March 2021: Friends of the Earth sends a legal letter to Leeds City Council’s Plans Panel outlining legal concerns about the expansion.
  • March 2021: GALBA sends a letter to Michael Gove, Secretary of State requesting them to “call in” the airport expansion.
  • January 2022: Michael Gove calls a public inquiry into the proposed expansion which was due to take place in September 2022.
  • March 2022: Leeds Bradford Airport withdraws its planning application, ahead of the public inquiry.

Overall, the campaign was hugely successful because it combined local and national action. Open letters requesting a withdrawal of the proposal were circulated within communities and signed, regular newsletters were sent, and protests took place locally, making the issue visible throughout West Yorkshire. Alongside this, individuals wrote letters to government and campaigners lobbied local councillors, the Mayor and MPs.

Reflecting back on the campaign, David from Leeds Friends of the Earth believes lobbying the Secretary of State Michael Gove was the turning point of the campaign, as he “called in” the decision to expand the airport. A decision getting “called in” means a planning inspector is appointed to carry out a new review of the application. David explains that this process meant the airport had to justify all its questionable reasons for expanding.

Ultimately, David believes Leeds Bradford Airport’s decision to withdraw its planning application was due to the cost and time the inquiry would take, and realising the proposal didn’t have the support, and therefore revenue, to warrant expansion.

It’s shocking to think the airport needed this much persuading and external pressure to withdraw its application despite the lack of support.

The role of ally-building in campaign success

Campaigning group GALBA did a fantastic job mobilising concerned citizens and groups to work towards a shared goal: stopping the Leeds Bradford expansion. Working with others is the key to a successful campaign, as this can often bring new insight and a range of expertise to support campaigning towards the shared goal. For example, David from Leeds Friends of the Earth worked alongside North West Leeds Transport Forum where he was able to gain some detailed advice from qualified experts.

David from Leeds Friends of the Earth described working with GALBA as a positive experience because they were so highly organised, well-funded and used high-quality legal advice. Had an individual group worked on its own without the support of others, the outcome may have been more difficult to achieve.

The campaign to stop the Leeds Bradford Airport expansion shows there’s more power in action when people work together and share their skills and experiences.

If you’d like to meet like-minded campaigners in your local area, why not join us at Groundswell this year?