Stop Stansted Expansion delay bid fails in High Court

Aerial view of Stansted Airport, Essex
Image caption Geoff Muirhead was appointed to the Airports Commission by the government in October 2012

A legal bid to halt the expansion of Stansted Airport has failed at the High Court.

Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE) argued criteria used to decide options for runway sites was "infected by apparent bias" and asked for a delay.

It claimed Geoff Muirhead, a recently resigned member of the Airports Commission, had a conflict of interest.

The judicial review was contested by the Airports Commission and the Department for Transport (DfT).

The judge ruled both Mr Muirhead and the commission might have acted in a way that was not "the most wise" and their conduct could have been regarded by a fair-minded observer as "less than ideal".

But the apparent bias accusation was not supported by the evidence, Mrs Justice Patterson said.

The court heard Manchester Airports Group (MAG), the owner of Stansted since February, submitted proposals to the commission for a two-runway option at Stansted, and also a four-runway hub airport option which would make Stansted the largest airport in the world.

'Defensive strategy'

Aviation expert Mr Muirhead is a former chief executive of MAG.

In September, he stepped down as one of the five commissioners appointed by the commission after SSE warned Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin they would take legal action if he stayed.

SSE said he retired as MAG's chief executive after 22 years with the group but was then immediately reappointed as "a highly paid ambassador to MAG, a role he continued to fulfil even after he was appointed to the Airports Commission".

Mrs Justice Patterson observed that a "fair minded and informed observer would not have regarded the actions of Mr Muirhead in remaining as a commissioner until September 20, or those of the Commission in retaining him, as the most wise".

But she ruled a "defensive strategy" was adopted so that, "although the conduct of both parties was less than ideal", a "fair-minded and informed observer" would not have been satisfied there was "a real possibility of bias".

'So much at stake'

Dismissing the legal challenge, the judge ordered SSE to pay legal costs of up to £10,000.

The unsuccessful application for judicial review was brought by Peter Sanders and Brian Ross, described as "long-standing and key" members of SSE, which wants to contain the development of the Essex airport "within sustainable limits".

They asked the High Court to order the commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, "to revisit certain key decisions made by the commission during the time that Mr Muirhead was involved".

In a statement after the ruling, SSE said the judge was critical of the commission for not being more transparent about Mr Muirhead's consultancy arrangements.

"Because there is so much at stake, and because the position is still not entirely satisfactory, SSE needs time to give proper consideration to the judge's 60-page ruling and to discuss it in detail with its legal advisers before deciding whether there are aspects of the judgment that need to be taken to the Court of Appeal."

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