The Manston Airport saga was back in the High Court in London this Wednesday, a hearing that could settle the fate of the £500mn investment hope for the East Kent site. At the end of the day the airport’s future remained in the judge’s hands.
This was to hear the judicial review that had been applied for by Ramsgate resident Jenny Dawes, a long-time campaigner against Manston Airport. She was asking the court to overturn the Development Consent Order (DCO) that was granted last year. This order gave the go ahead for plans for Manston to become a significant air cargo hub and other aviation activities including passenger flights.
The hearing took place in Court 2 at the Royal Courts of Justice and was heard by Mr Justice Dove KC whose CV shows a lot of experience in planning, compulsory purchase and environmental issues.
The court room itself is surprisingly small and was pushed to fit in the number of members of the public who had travelled from Kent to see the case. Indeed, it was so crowded that, unusually, the judge invited the overflow of the public to sit in the well of the court, something I was very grateful for as from there I could hear all that was said.
Process not justification
The role of the court in this case was not to decide on whether the Manston plans were a good idea or not. It is solely to decide if the process that the minister went through in deciding to grant the DCO was correct. It looks at process not justification.
Dawes’ barrister focused on two areas: one challenging the background to the decision to accept the need for the airport and the other over how the minister decided that the airport was environmentally acceptable.
It was interesting to listen to Dawes’ barrister’s arguments, though it was always hard to follow. The basic thrust of the lawyers was to refer to ‘page so and so’ of the court bundle. The barristers were forever picking up one thick ring binder or another whilst the judge was following the bundle electronically on a laptop. The judge often seemed ahead in knowing which page was being looked at.
One thing that struck me when listening to Dawes’ barrister was how he could argue one way on one ground and totally the opposite on another. Over the need for the airport, he argued that the airport capacity could be fulfilled by other airports by plans that hadn’t yet been made or applied for. In the second, the environment question, he seemed to argue that government carbon budget strategy reports did not include Manston, so all of the extra carbon was down to Manston. Yet his first argument was that that extra demand, so therefore carbon, would be taken up by other airports. I’m no lawyer but that seems to be having your cake and eating it.
Did the minister take a rational decision?
A lot was made over the different conclusions of reports by experts commissioned by the different parties. Dawes’ barrister tried to criticise the methods used in the airport proponents’ report which, naturally, was refuted by the minister’s side.
It was also strange hearing the case put forward by the minister’s barrister over the need for Manston. I naturally expected to hear strong arguments for the need, I had them rehearsed in my mind, but he was happy to quote things that did not support the case for the need for Manston. I had to remind myself that his job was to show that the minister had taken these into account to make a rational decision. It wasn’t his job to sell the case for Manston.
The case was originally scheduled for a day and a half, but the judge decided to allocate all of Thursday to it. By the end of Thursday, all three legal teams representing Dawes, the Department of Trade and the owners of the airport site had put their arguments to the court. The judge, as is usual in these cases, reserved his decision. When we will hear his decision is unsure and may be delayed by the court’s summer recess.
Manston objectors’ war of attrition
Tony Freudman of Riveroak said on local radio after the hearings that local objectors had changed from “no night flights to no airport” and had embarked on a “war of attrition”, the latest part of which was the last two days’ court case. He said that, if they had been able to go ahead when permission was first given without any legal challenge:
“We estimated by now, 2023, there would have been about 650 construction workers on the site getting the airport to the point where it was ready to open in 2024 next year, and we would have been halfway through a recruitment program of employing, up to 2,000 people.”
Dr Beau Webber, chair of the pro-airport ‘Save Manston’ movement after the hearing said, “Riveroak, we believe, are reasonably upbeat”.
Fate of Manston in judge’s hands
If the court supports the DCO it will mean that Riveroak, the owners of the airport, can get things underway to build 19 cargo aircraft stands, new taxiways, four stands for passenger aircraft, eight aviation hangers and a new passenger terminal building. If the court decides against, the Minister will have to consider an appeal or to rerun his decision process.
If the airport does not eventually go ahead it is not known what the future of the site would be.