On a wing and a prayer : Manchester Airport Group’s flying fantasies get airtime at scrutiny committees

At the start of 2023, Manchester Airport Group presented at the Environment and Climate Change Scrutiny committee. As CEM prepares for February scrutiny and a new campaign (it’s time), we first wanted to log this half hour of dangerous techno-fantasy. It typifies a wider disconnect between plans and reality, and an utterly broken format.

Recap: one year and a misleading strategy on.

As a quick recap, Manchester Airport Group (indeed the very same head of Corporate Social Responsibility) last presented at ECCSC in January 2023. MAG also spoke at the ECCSC in December 2021 and then Economy Scrutiny Committee in March 2022 in a presentation focused on the airport’s contribution to the city coffers (in doubt after Covid). For these meetings, CEM and supporters published an accompanying report, with three recommendations: 1) a moratorium on airport expansion; 2) a more just budget for aviation, and 3) more transparent disclosure to risks on MCC’s budget (following the huge bailout of 2020 and because further investment in the airport is an environmental risk). 

The then scrutiny chair summarised these points and the questioning from councilors began to pick at contradictions between the city’s climate pleasures and the appetite for flying. However, in a ‘turkeys won’t vote for Christmas’ situation these meetings confirmed that there was not the slightest chance that MAG wanted limit flying.

Since then, a series of scandals (flying empty ‘ghost’ planes just to keep slots, hours of delays in baggage control) has put the industry even more firmly on the defensive. In July, the government launched ‘Jet Zero: our approach for achieving net zero aviation by 2050’. If you think the title is naff, the product of a smug strategy meeting, then the document itself is much worse: take your pick from deluded, dangerous or downright illegal. So blatantly so that the government is being taken to court… twice.. Two separate judicial reviews have been lodged by campaign groups Possible and GALBA (Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport).

Unchallenged pitch for limitless flying

The presentation from MAG followed the Jet Zero playbook to the letter. We could have played bingo with the roll call of things that save us: sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen aircraft, vegan baggage handlers (OK, the last was not explicitly mentioned…). You can fly, or even fly more, when these are in place. Indeed, MAG’s shtick is not just to sign up to the strategy but to position itself as, you guessed it, a leader in these technologies – the majority of which are not yet proven at the necessary scale.

But the shaky runway on which MAG’s case rests was not tested on this occasion. So often we hear Manchester scrutiny committees flailing back on (justified) critiques of national government. Yet here a flawed government plan, amplified by industry, was here taken as read. This, in the same as Grant Schapps equating hydrogen flight with a zero calories cake. You don’t need any technical knowledge to sense that this is all too good to be true.

MAG’s presentation was preceded by a few slides from the Manchester Climate Change Agency, setting out their principles: precautionary, urgency, equity. That’s all very well, but it was difficult to see how they directly related to what follows. MAG is a member of the Manchester  Climate Change Partnership, but it’s hard to know what this means, and what is different as a result. And why do we not then get promotional presentations from other members of the partnership? Why does only one get free airtime to set out its ‘no behavior change necessary; vision of the future?

Missed connections

At the very least, the next greenwash half hour like this needs some figures. Questions that tried to make a case for justice (targeting those who fly the most)  were stymied by the lack of data. Councillors were clear that residents should not be punished for ‘taking one holiday a year’ but frequent flier levies don’t kick in for just one trip. Moreover, the MAG reps suggested that most flights out of Manchester are for business anyway (another point made without the figures to hand).

The most sanguine comments came from a short wrap up by leader Bev Craig, who had been sitting in Economy class at the back of the room throughout. She at least raised the point that discussions about flying (how we get to where we want to be) need to be brought together with the parallel discussions about rail and transport infrastructure. A reliable train service is a great incentive for flying less and more feasible than SAF.  But once again, there was no chance of making progress in the set up of this committee, with this broken format.  

If you’d like to support or connect with others taking action on Jet Zero and UK airports, check out GALBA

And stay tuned for more from us on what you can do closer to Manchester…

4 thoughts on “On a wing and a prayer : Manchester Airport Group’s flying fantasies get airtime at scrutiny committees”

  1. I was at this scrutiny committee as a member of the public – I had emailed the chair to ask to be allowed to speak about MAG – she didn’t get back to me. I did though speak to the MAG representatives in the corridor after their presentation. I raised a number of my concerns but I’ll mention just one here.

    I asked why the airport was making no effort to encourage people to fly less. After a few seconds of wide-eyed incredulity one of the MAG people said ‘we’re a business’.

    When the scrutiny committee listens to MAG they need to process any remarks about a transition to a sustainable industry through that clear bottom line comment ‘we’re a business’. The MAG director of sustainability is not there to make a case for sustainable aviation. He is there to make the case for expansion.

    1. Hi Graham, yep this situation (writ large) is at the root of so many of our problems. Economic expansion trumps all other concerns.

      Of course in this case the Council has an additional perverse incentive in that they are major shareholders of MAG…

  2. You can read Grahame Buss’s response to Chloe’s post above. Not only is he a Manchester resident, he is also a member of Safe Landing, who say on their website “We are a group of aviation workers campaigning for long-term employment. We do this by challenging industry leaders to conform with climate science and reject dangerous growth.” What could be more in line with Labour Party policy than protecting employment at the same time as protecting the planet?

    The reason Grahame is a member of Safe Landing is that he was formerly employed in the oil industry and is incredibly knowledgeable about the flaws and the fantasy in the government’s Jet Zero programme – which, lest we forget, was brought in by Boris Johnson.

    Councillor Rob Nunney (a member of the Environment & Climate Change Scrutiny Committee) and myself, both from Manchester Green Party, were involved in Grahame’s application to Mandie Shilton Godwin (Chair of the Environment & Climate Change Scrutiny Committee) to be allowed to speak at the January meeting on aviation. This was in line with Council policy that members of the public may speak so long as they apply beforehand to the chair. As Grahame points out, he was not allowed to do so.

    This is a failure of the democratic process. If a member of the public thinks that they have vital information to contribute to a debate that the Council is having, they should be welcomed to do so. Why wasn’t Grahame allowed to speak? There was plenty of time – the chair had said at the previous meeting of the scrutiny committee that the agenda for January was light. He was not speaking “on behalf of the Green Party” – our involvement was merely to open up the Council to a more open process. The only plausible reason was that no-one was going to be allowed to say anything that would rock the boat. Councillor Craig’s presence was proof of that.

    The work of a council is slow and incremental, and unsuited to a crisis on the scale of climate change. By its own admission, Manchester City Council is woefully off-target with its carbon emissions. We need new thinking and new ways of doing things in order to get to a destination that is a frighteningly long way off, and becoming more unreachable with every day that goes by.

    NB Neither Grahame Buss nor Climate Emergency Manchester have any affiliation with Manchester Green Party.

  3. A FOIA sent to informationcompliance@manchester.ac.uk today –

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    I note with weariness that once again Manchester City Council is trampling on democratic processes and the purported “rights” of citizens.

    I refer to the fact that a resident of Manchester wanted to address the “scrutiny committee” so democratically-chaired by Mandie Shilton-Godwin (“Environment and ‘Climate Change'”) and he was not able to do so.

    What a surprise.

    Please provide answers to the following
    1. a) copies of email discussions/memos between Cllr Shilton-Godwin and other members of the council (officers, elected members) pertaining to this request to address the “Scrutiny” Committtee.
    b) copies of emails from Cllr Shilton-Godwin to the member of the public who requested – via two councillors – to speak, explaining the reasons why she was not going to allow him to exercise his democratic rights.

    2. What instructions/advice/training exist for scrutiny committee chairs about creating a space for members of the public to speak.
    Please provide a copy of this advice, and when it was last updated.
    Please tell me when this training will be updated, since it is CLEARLY not working.

    3. Does the council keep any record of how frequently members of the public
    a) request permission to address any of the six scrutiny committee
    b) how many times this has been granted
    c) how many times this has been denied and for what “reason”
    d) If the council does NOT keep such basic information, why not, and does it have any intention of doing so.

    4. Does the Council have any intention of publicising the existence of its scrutiny committee meetings more broadly than simply an agenda buried deep on its appalling website. If so, what are these plans? If not, why not?

    Please consider this a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000
    Dr Marc Hudson

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