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Airport expansion on ‘vital’ nature reserve to be challenged in court

RSPB and locals will fight to protect marsh used by migratory birds at Dungeness

Controversial plans for a major extension to an airport which sits next to one of Britain's most important nature reserves - as well as a nuclear power station - are to be challenged in court, it was announced today.

The RSPB will appeal the outcome of a public inquiry, as well as the government's decision to give permission for the plans to go ahead, in the High Court. And a local campaign group has said it has also launched a High Court challenge in a bid to have the decision quashed and force the government back to the drawing board.

The planned expansion would see the tiny Lydd airport, which welcomed fewer than 500 passengers in 2011, capable of serving more than 500,000-a-year; thereby placing it in Britain's top 30 airports for annual passenger numbers.

But its opponents, some of whom have been fighting for more than 10 years, say that it is under one of the largest migratory bird routes in the South of England and expressed fears its growth could lead to more bird strikes.

The Lydd Airport Action Group is basing its fight on planning grounds because of the proximity to Dungeness Power Station and is bringing action under Section 288 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. The RSPB, on the other hand, is exercising its right to appeal the government's decision, which was taken last month following a public inquiry and inspector's report. The two actions are being taken separately.

Chris Corrigan, the RSPB's south east regional director, said: “Dungeness is one of the most important wildlife sites in the world.

”It is protected at global, European and UK levels. It is home to species found hardly anywhere else in the UK. It is also a crossroads for migrating birds stopping off on their epic global journeys. The stakes are too high to risk the future of one of our best and most important places for nature without testing the basis for this decision which we consider to be flawed.“

A spokesman added that the RSPB was worried about what it called ”perversions“ in the public inquiry. He added: ”Dungeness is of huge importance globally. It would be remiss of us not to ensure that this decision is tested fully where we believe the inspector has not done so.

Louise Barton of the Lydd Airport Action Group said: “This [expansion] is not needed, all sorts of things about it are strange.” She added that the group and its lawyer Matthew Horton QC would be looking for “inconsistencies in the decision-making process”, on which to base their challenge.

The airport, which is also known as London Ashford Airport, is on the Romney Marsh in Kent. The plans, costing £25m, include a 294-metre runway extension, a 150-metre starter extension, plus a new terminal building. Its owners say they have already spent £35m over the past 10 years modernising the airport, which has operated on the Dungeness Peninusula since 1954.

Greeting last month's approval, the airport's executive manager Hani Mutlaq said it was a “victory for common sense and for the people of Romney Marsh”.

The plans will create jobs, boost tourism and revive a long-standing economic blackspot as well as provide sorely-needed additional airport capacity in the south east, he said.

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “The planning decision from April took into account all the relevant issues and representations.

”That decision has been supported by the local district council, the county council and the local MP. We will respond in due course to the legal submission.“