Since 2018, the celebrated former Battle of Britain airfield and commercial airport at Manston, in the Southeast of England, has been the subject of a proposal by RiverOak Strategic Partners (RSP) for redevelopment as a state-of-the-art hub for international airfreight. However, almost six years after the Development Consent Order (DCO) application was submitted, and almost four years after the DCO was first granted by the UK Government, the project remains in suspended animation – mired in legal challenge after legal challenge.

The delays to the project, the first aviation DCO to be designated a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project by the UK Government, have served to highlight serious frailties in the UK planning system, which are seriously damaging investor confidence in the UK, preventing Manston from delivering on its strategic economic value to the nation and making a mockery of planning laws. The Government declines to invest in airport infrastructure itself, but then fails to support private investors with clarity and certainty on planning.  It’s the worst of all worlds.

RSP and its investors, are calling upon the Government to reform the planning laws – to provide a more efficient and defined process for the interrogation of major infrastructure planning applications.

About the Manston Proposal

Designed to deliver carbon neutral ground operations from day one, the proposed airfreight hub at Manston would help the UK trade across the globe – importing vital and time-sensitive goods, including fresh fruit and medical supplies, providing air freight operators with a realistic alternative to the overcrowded London airports, and easing the considerable road congestion caused by lorries carrying freight through the channel tunnel to European airports and improving both economic and operational resilience.

Generating around 650 construction jobs, and 2,000 permanent jobs once the airport is fully operational (plus many thousands of indirect jobs), Manston will also deliver economic prosperity and employment across Kent. The east Kent economy, in particular, has deteriorated significantly over the last few years and is desperate for major investment to spark opportunity and growth.

The project requires no government funding and has attracted several international investors who are prepared to invest £800 million in this deprived part of the country.

The Development Consent and Judicial Review timeline – to date

The Manston project was accepted by the Secretary of State as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) on 17 July 2018.  Following a public inquiry lasting six months from January 2019 it was granted a Development Consent Order (DCO) by the Secretary of State for Transport on 9 July 2020 six months later than the due date for decision.

In his 2020 DCO decision, the Secretary of State for Transport made it clear that the DCO proposals for Manston are consistent with all relevant Government policies, including the Airports National Policy, Aviation Policy Framework, General Aviation strategy and Transport Decarbonisation Plan.

Nevertheless, a judicial review challenge to the decision was launched by Jenny Dawes, a resident of the town of Ramsgate, some 3.5 miles from the airport. In December 2020, the Secretary of State decided not to defend the challenge and the decision was formally quashed in February 2021.

After three rounds of consultation the DCO was granted for a second time on 18 August 2022. A judicial review (JR) challenge was again made by Jenny Dawes, on similar grounds to her first challenge.

Permission for a JR was refused on the papers by Mr Justice Lane on 13 January 2023; this took two months longer than the Planning Court’s target timescale partly due to the claimant seeking permission to amend the grounds of claim.  The claimant then renewed her application for permission to be heard in open court, which is her automatic right.

The renewal hearing was held on 23 March 2023 and granted in part that day by Mrs Justice Lieven; this took one month longer than the Planning Court’s target timescale.  This meant that the claim advanced to a full judicial review hearing.

The full JR hearing finally took place in front of Mr Justice Dove on 5 and 6 July 2023, within the Planning Court’s target timescale. There a no target timescales for any further steps in the process.

Mr Justice Dove’s Judgment was issued on 22 September 2023, refusing the entire claim .  The claimant sought leave from Mr Justice Dove to appeal to the Court of Appeal and this was refused on 9 October 2023.

The claimant then sought leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal from the Court of Appeal itself.  Lord Justice Warby (not a planning judge) granted permission to appeal on 7 February 2024, meaning it will go forward to a hearing.

A date for the hearing is awaited.

The damaging effect of the challenge

Judgment by the Court of Appeal is likely to be around six years after the original NSIP designation was made in 2018 and two years after the second decision to grant development consent was taken.  If the claim is dismissed, Ms Dawes could appeal to the Supreme Court, delaying the project even further.

International investors cannot understand how the same issues can be litigated again and again, why there are so many stages to litigation in the UK and why each one takes so long.

Although the integrity of the judicial system in the UK remains highly respected, the multitude of stages, the lengthy delays taken and the ability to challenge the same issues repeatedly have resulted in a significant loss of faith in the UK’s ability to support infrastructure development and inward investment effectively.

RSP and its investors, which have collectively already spent more than £42 million on the project, call upon the Government to reform the major infrastructure planning laws. It is vitally important that the determination of nationally significant infrastructure projects should not be delayed for years through endless litigation and uncertainty, to the detriment of all involved – not least the defendant (in this case the Government and therefore the British public), and the relevant markets, economies and regional communities relying on the project’s investment in creating better transport infrastructure and employment opportunities.