2nd December 2013
Airports Commission – SSE High Court challenge
High Court Judge Mrs Justice Patterson has today (2 December 2013) issued her ruling on the challenge brought by Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE) arising from the role played by Mr Geoff Muirhead as a Commissioner on the Airports Commission.
Mrs Justice Patterson agreed it was right for Mr Muirhead to step down from the Commission as soon as it became known that his former employer, the Manchester Airports Group (MAG), the owners of Stansted Airport, would be submitting proposals for extra runways at Stansted.
Nevertheless, Mrs Justice Patterson ruled against SSE in deciding that no previous harm could have been done by Mr Muirhead, in terms of bias, during his involvement with the Commission from 2 November 2012 until his resignation on 20 September 2013 – which happened only after SSE had instructed its lawyers to commence legal proceedings.
Notably, Mrs Justice Patterson remarked in her ruling that neither the actions of Mr Muirhead, in remaining as a Commissioner until September 2013, nor those of the Commission in retaining him until then, could be regarded “as the most wise”.
Mrs Justice Patterson was also critical of the Commission for not being more transparent about Mr Muirhead’s consultancy arrangements. The point she was referring to was that neither Geoff Muirhead nor the Commission had made any formal declaration that he was still being paid £150,000 a year by MAG when he was appointed to the Commission.
Although SSE has achieved its principal objective in pursuing this legal challenge, namely the removal of Mr Muirhead from the Commission, SSE still has some concerns about the integrity of the process going forward. Some of SSE’s concerns were addressed in the course of the legal proceedings as a result of confidential information disclosed by the Commission in witness statements and exhibits, including the minutes of internal meetings.
Despite its public commitment to be open and transparent, the Airports Commission considers that it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Therefore, much of the information released to SSE as a result of its legal proceedings could not otherwise have been obtained.
One (non-confidential) point that has become clear during these proceedings is the pivotal role played by Department for Transport civil servants on secondment to the Airports Commission. This is because Commissioners only work on Commission business for two days a month, one of which days is set aside for its monthly meeting. The Chairman is expected to work four or five days per month. All the Commissioners work pro bono.
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 advisors before deciding whether there are aspects of the judgment that need to be taken to the Court of Appeal. In the meantime, SSE will be making no further comment.