‘Cloud cuckoo land’: Climate campaigners pile pressure on government to block Leeds Bradford Airport expansion plans

Ever since plans for a new £150m terminal at one of the north’s biggest airports were first drawn up three years ago, bosses have been at pains to highlight how it would be a net-zero building.

“It’s a bizarre boast,” says opponent Chris Foren today. “This is a development designed to facilitate thousands more flights every year. Making it carbon neutral is a bit like cutting down the Amazon rainforest using an environmentally-friendly axe.”

Controversial proposals to transform Leeds Bradford Airport into the north’s second busiest such hub have long scythed opinion in West Yorkshire.

Advocates argue the expansion would build on Boris Johnson’s levelling up agenda by creating thousands of jobs in an area much in need of a post-coronavirus boost. Critics call it an environmental catastrophe in the making.

Now, after councillors approved the plans, an alliance of more than 75 environmental groups, residents associations and politicians from across the political spectrum have this week written to the government demanding the decision be called in for a public inquiry.

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In a battle which echoes the ongoing fight over a planned new coal mine in Cumbria, campaigners say the proposed terminal – and the resulting 3 million more annual air passengers – would devastate the UK’s commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

They argue that the final say over such a scheme should not have been left to Leeds City Council alone because the environmental ramifications will be felt by everyone across the country.

“Two years ago, the council here declared a climate emergency; well, this would blow that to smithereens,” says Foren, chair of the Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport, the collective behind the new letter. “There’s no point saying they believe there is a climate emergency and having all the council vehicles running on electric if they then allow a new terminal which means a 75 per cent increase in passengers at the local airport. It is a complete contradiction. It goes against everything we need to achieve.”

Crucially, perhaps, this is a fight with significance far beyond this particular corner of Yorkshire.

With a raft of other regional airports seeking permission to expand in the coming months – notably Stansted, Southampton and Bristol – what happens here may well pave the way for what happens elsewhere.

“If we keep allowing things like this to go ahead – if we don’t take curbing emissions seriously – it’s soon going to be game over,” says Foren, a retired prosecutor who lives in Leeds. “As we say in the letter, this is the aviation equivalent of the Cumbria coal mine and it is just as important the government views this as a national – a global – decision and blocks it from going ahead.”

The new terminal itself was first mooted in 2018 as part of a scheme that would turn Leeds Bradford into the second busiest airport in the north (after Manchester) and the 10th busiest in the country.

The scheme would see the old 1960s terminal replaced with a new three-storey, glass-fronted complex enabling up to 17 extra flights a day (as well as significantly more retail space). It would, says airport chief executive Vincent Hodder, create thousands of jobs, thus “contributing significantly to the government’s levelling up agenda and plans for improved connectivity.”

A petition backing the expansion has been signed by more than 1,600 city residents. The numbers demonstrate “that ordinary people want this scheme to go ahead,” claimed Ross Bailey, spokesperson for the Leeds Bradford Airport Support Group, in a previous statement.

For it’s part, the Labour-run Leeds City Council says it does not believe approving the expansion contradicts its own stance on the climate crisis.

Artist’s impression of new Leeds Bradford Airport terminal

(Leeds Bradford Airport)

Not a single elected cabinet member was willing to answer questions from The Independent for this piece. Leader James Lewis and executive board members for economy Mary Harland and for environment Mohammed Rafique all declined to discuss the thinking behind approving the plans.

But in a statement issued by the authority’s press office, it was said that aviation emissions were “something that should be primarily tackled at a national level and addressed through international agreements, rather than by suppressing growth at individual airports in a way that could simply export passengers to other nearby airports at a higher financial cost to them”.

The council’s decision to approve the plans will, it adds, automatically be considered by the government because it impacts on greenbelt land.

Yet this falls short of the public inquiry demanded by opponents .

“Climate change is an existential threat, we cannot dodge that,” says Andrew Cooper, the Green Party candidate to become West Yorkshire’s first directly elected mayor in the upcoming local elections. “Thinking you can deal with global warming but keep sending more and more planes into the skies is the stuff of cloud cuckoo land.”

On the same day the plans were approved here in February, he points out, authorities in France canned similar proposals to expand Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. “Our neighbours are doing their bit,” says Cooper. “What does it say about the UK if we are not doing ours?”

Is he not won over by the thought of jobs for his region? One estimate suggests it could create 12,000 new roles by 2030.

“Of course we need jobs,” he says. “But tying us into a long-term carbon economy is not the right way forward. We need to be looking to our children’s future and investing in a sustainable industries.”

He adds that noise pollution and increased road traffic were all among other concerns raised by the proposals.

For now, then, all eyes will turn to communities secretary Robert Jenrick, who will decide if the expansion should be called in for a government inquiry.

Among those urging him to do so in Tuesday’s letter are Alex Sobel, the Labour MP for Leeds North West, as well as Labour, Lib Dem and Green councillors from across West Yorkshire’s five councils. It followed a previous letter in February signed by five Leeds parliamentarians, including Hilary Benn and Richard Burgon, which has been acknowledged by Jenrick but, so far, left effectively unanswered.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been contacted for comment.

Back with Foren, who started campaigning against the plans three years ago, he remains hopeful they can still be stopped even at this late stage.

“All we are really asking,” he says, “is for the government to show they are on the right side of history.”

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