Luton Airport’s Planning Condition betrayal

Condition 10 is one of the planning conditions laid down by Luton Borough Council in 2013 to protect the quality of life for local residents by limiting the noise impact as Luton Airport increased its capacity. The condition requires the total noise footprint calculated for the busiest summer months to stay within overall limits by day and by night. If, as the Airport promised, planes get quieter over time, then it can fly more of them and still stay within the limit – but not until they have got quieter.

However, a month after setting these limits, the Council and its Airport owning company LLAL struck a deal with the Airport Operator to incentivise faster growth: the Council would rebate part of the fee for operating the Airport, and the Operator would reduce landing charges for airlines which delivered year-on-year growth in passenger numbers. What they failed to do was ensure that this growth would stay within the noise limits defined in the planning conditions. The rate of introduction of new flights far exceeded the original projections which the Airport Operator had set down to match growth with the rate of introduction of quieter aircraft.

Because growth in the numbers of “slots” allocated by the Airport Operator for flights was allowed to overtake the rate of introduction of quieter planes, the noise footprint grew too quickly. The Council took no action to require growth to be constrained (it had sanctioned the incentivisation of faster growth) so the net result was that despite warning in 2016 the growth trajectory would exceed the noise limits of Condition 14, neither the Operator nor the Council did anything about it and the limit was breached in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

This is a clear-cut case of commercial gain being put before environmental responsibility, and none of the parties involved (the Council, LLAL and the Airport Operator) acted to ensure that growth kept pace with noise mitigation, as required by Condition 10. All kinds of excuses have been made, none of which acknowledges this basic fact. Because Planning Law is elastic, the Council was entitled to suggest that the Airport Operator apply to have the Condition 10 limits varied to suit its operation, and of course the Airport Operator has done so.

Local MPs, community groups, other Local Authorities and hundreds of residents have objected to such a change being allowed, and Luton Borough Council will find its decision on this matter being reviewed by the Secretary of State. Condition 10 variation represents an important point of principle: should commercial greed be allowed to ride roughshod over planning conditions to protect communities? And, particularly in this case, should a Borough Council have permitted such a clear conflict of interest in which it is the financial beneficiary of actions it is party to and which undermine its responsibilities to local residents as a Planning Authority? This kind of conflicted situation strikes at the heart of Localism. You can find a link to LADACAN’s submissions at the bottom of this page.

LADACAN has raised this matter with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Their view is that since the Localism Act was introduced, and the Audit Commission disbanded, the government has no powers to intervene in how Local Authorities behave, but it expects them to show ‘the highest levels of probity’. LADACAN has pointed out that in cases where actions are clearly not meeting that gold standard, there is no backstop. MHCLG has no answer to this, other than the route of formal complaint to the Local Authority itself and, if no satisfactory response is achieved, seeking to escalate to the Local Government Ombudsman.

LADACAN has engaged with the formal complaint process, which is hedged about with caveats as to what you may or may not complain about and in what timeframe. Luton Borough Council refused to answer the complaint that its Airport owning company LLAL incentivised faster growth and hence undermined the planning condition, saying that it was a separate legal entity and a private company. LADACAN has therefore escalated the complaint to the Ombudsman, since it is clear that the people who run LLAL are the same senior people who run and are Members of Luton Council – their time is charged by the Council to LLAL. So the conflict is clear, the financial motive is clear, and we hope the Ombudsman has the courage to call this out for what it is: unacceptable.

The only glimmer of light in this sordid affair is that it has brought to our attention an excellent paper by a Committee headed up by Lord Evans into conduct in public life. Chapter 7 of that paper could have been written with Luton Borough Council and LLAL in mind, and is unequivocal in condemning conflicts of interest in public/private operations.

Since the Covid-19 crisis, the level of air traffic at Luton Airport has reduced – though Wizz Air was the last passenger airline to stop flying there and the first to resume, but that’s another story. So while this summer the Condition 10 limits may be safe, the point of principle remains, and that’s what this battle is all about. Why should Luton Airport ride roughshod over the clear environmental protections it signed up to when it wanted to expand? And why has Luton Borough Council failed adequately to scrutinise the operation and enforce its planning condition? Is money anything to do with it in either case?

Our objections to the three attempts by the Airport Operator LLAOL to submit a coherent application can be found on the page Objecting to Condition 10 Variation. Anyone affected by noise from Luton Airport and interested in assisting with the forensic review and rebuttal of planning applications which favour industry rather than local communities is very welcome to contact us on