Environmentalists disappointed by decision to approve plan to extend runway at Lydd, also known as London Ashford airport
Environmental groups including the RSPB and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) are considering legal action to challenge the government’s decision to allow the expansion of Lydd airport in Kent.
The minor airfield, wedged between Dungeness nuclear power station, Romney Marsh and a nature reserve, has been given permission to extend its runway and handle up to 500,000 passengers a year.
The plan was approved by Eric Pickles, the communities and local government secretary, and Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, following a protracted dispute over an application first submitted in 2006. The growth of London Ashford airport, as it is formally known, is designed to ease air congestion in the south-east and create local jobs.
But the decision is fiercely opposed by environmental activists, who fear it will destroy the tranquillity of the Kent coast and a nearby bird sanctuary. The RSPB and the CPRE are examining the 365-page report to see whether they can seek a judicial review in the high court.
The airfield has been owned by a Saudi businessman, Sheikh Fahad al-Athel, since 2001. As a director of the Al Bilad company, Athel came to attention for his role as a fixer for Saudi Arabia’s multibillion-pound Al Yamamah arms deal.
Lydd opened in 1956 and at the height of its success Silver City airways, Dan-Air and other firms were carrying 250,000 people a year. Business collapsed in the 1970s.
Shepway district council voted in favour of the expansion plan in 2010 but the scheme was called in by central government for assessment because of its national importance. Its approval allows the construction of a runway extension that can take Boeing 737 charter flights, and a new terminal building.
Opponents, who fear passenger numbers will eventually increase to two million a year, have six weeks to appeal against the decision.
The RSPB’s conservation director, Martin Harper, said: “This is the wrong decision as it opens the door to real damage to Dungeness, to its wildlife and the quality of life for many of its residents and risks destroying a unique asset that is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people.
“Dungeness is a special place for nature, which is recognised globally for the importance of its wildlife. This decision means nowhere is safe and signals that nature is in trouble in the face of unfettered growth – these are worrying times for all who care for Britain’s wildlife. We will be taking time to review the detail of the decision – and to plan our next steps.”
Neil Sinden, policy and campaigns director at the CPRE, said: “This is a terrible decision which threatens one of the few remaining areas of rural tranquillity in heavily pressured south-east, and in a county once proudly described as the Garden of England. And it will not just alarm environmentalists.
“There were many in the aviation sector who considered this scheme to be nonsensical and a non-starter. If there are any economic benefits, which is unlikely, they will be heavily outweighed by the environmental damage that it will cause on so many levels. Campaigners are bound to consider all legal options to have this disturbing decision overturned.”
Keith Taylor, the Green party MEP for the south-east, said: “The expansion also brings with it a serious nuclear safety issue that the government seems to have ignored. This government decision is bad for wildlife, potentially dangerous for local people and a step in the wrong direction in fighting climate change.”
Hani Mutlaq, Lydd airport’s executive manager, said he was delighted with the go-ahead. “I’m very pleased,” he told the Guardian. “I hope construction will start this year. At the moment we only have scheduled flights to Le Touquet in France but with a longer runway we will have the capacity for 737s that can reach destinations across Europe.”
Richard Griffiths, the planning lawyer who led the team advising the airport’s owner, said: “This is a significant decision from the government given the crossroads which aviation policy currently faces. [It] is perhaps an indication of the government’s support for aviation expansion where the environmental impacts are demonstrated to be acceptable.
“Clearly the government has accepted that there is a need to grow capacity in the country’s airports. However, whilst this is an important decision for both the aviation industry and also for infrastructure investment in Kent, questions should be asked why it has taken over six years to make a decision on these proposals.”
The decision states: “After careful consideration, [the secretaries of state] are satisfied that there would be no likely significant effects on any designated conversation sites and also that the proposals would not have a significant effect on nuclear safety, landscape or tranquillity.”
Environmental activists claimed the proximity of Dungeness nuclear power station posed a severe risk if there was an air accident. In a local referendum, residents rejected the expansion scheme by a ratio of two to one.