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22 November 2013, 06:00
Campaigners are launching a new legal action in their battle against expansion at Stansted Airport.
The Stop Stansted Expansion group (SSE) argues that the key criteria being applied to decide on possible options for new runway sites in England are "infected by apparent bias''.
SSE will today ask High Court judge Mrs Justice Patterson, sitting in London, to order the Government-appointed Airports Commission to delay the publication of any options shortlist until the criteria have been looked at afresh and consulted upon.
The group alleges there was apparent bias because Geoff Muirhead, a recently-resigned member of the Commission, had a conflict of interest.
Mr Muirhead is a former chief executive of Manchester Airports Group (MAG), the owners of Stansted since February.
In September, he stepped down as one of the five commissioners appointed by the Commission after SSE warned Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin they would take legal action if he stayed.
SSE say he had retired as MAG's chief executive after 22 years with the group but was then immediately reappointed as ``a highly paid ambassador to MAG, a role he continued to fulfill even after he was appointed to the Airports Commission''.
SSE economics adviser Brian Ross said: ``With proposals on the table from MAG to make Stansted the world's busiest airport with four runways handling up to 160 million passengers a year, there is far too much at stake to allow the issue of apparent bias to go unchallenged.
``For almost a year, Mr Muirhead was allowed to play a pivotal role on the Commission as its only commissioner with first hand knowledge and experience of the aviation industry.''
Mr Ross said it was not enough simply to remove Mr Muirhead from the Commission.
SSE wants the High Court to order the Commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, ``to re-visit certain key decisions made by the Commission during the time that Mr Muirhead was involved''.
The Department for Transport maintain that Mr Muirhead ``acted properly'' at the Commission but stood down to ``avoid any perception of a potential conflict of interest''.
A DfT spokesman said: ``Both the department and Sir Howard agree that there is no evidence whatsoever of bias and the Airports Commission is content that decisions taken to date are robust.''
An Airports Commission spokesman rejected SSE's claims and described its processes to date as ``appropriate and robust''.
The spokesman said its selection criteria, or sift criteria, ``were informed by public consultation and incorporate a wide range of environmental, economic and social factors - including local environmental issues such as impacts on landscape and the built heritage.
``The sift criteria demonstrate the openness of the Commission's process, and the importance it has placed on an integrated and evidence-based approach to reaching its recommendations.''