We hear this week that airport operator BAA’s appeal to the Competition Commission against their decision that the operator must sell off some of their airports has been upheld. Concerns about the ‘apparent bias’ of one member of the panel has thrown the Committee into ‘disarray’ and means that BAA’s appeal against the Committee’s decision was won… on a technicality.
As we posted in our blog last year, the Office of Fair Trading referred its investigation into the supply of airport services in the UK to the Competition Commission in March 2007, after Spanish group Ferrovial bought BAA. The watchdog’s ensuing report called on the company to offload Stansted and Gatwick to different buyers, as well as sell either Glasgow or Edinburgh after finding that BAA’s ownership of a number of airports “gives rise to adverse effects on competition”. The airports had to be sold within 2 years of the report’s publication otherwise an independent group would be called in to sell off for them. The sale of Gatwick was agreed in October for £1. 51bn, making little dent in the company’s debt which this summer was creeping towards £10bn.
BAA may well be pleased about the outcome of their appeal. But it is surely a narrow victory for them. The Inquiry made no judgment on whether the Commission’s findings that threatened to shatter the airport owner’s monopoly were correct or not. BAA’s argument that two years was not enough time to complete the sell off of some of their airports was, however, dismissed. This decision essentially postpones the original ruling and BAA and the Commission must return to the table once more to thrash out the competition charge. Could this, as some in the media are suggesting, give BAA a last chance to fight back?
As the farce continues to play out, we are still waiting to have our day in court at the beleaguered Public Inquiry into plans at Stansted for a second runway which threaten 6 ancient woodlands. In 2007 the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears MP, said that the Public Inquiry would be postponed until the Competition Commission announced its findings but BAA’s swift appeal once these were announced has tied up the process even further and at vast expense.
How this latest drama will impact on the Inquiry is anyone’s guess right now. John Denham MP, now holding the post vacated by Blears earlier this year, said in July that it was unfeasible to begin an Inquiry while the future ownership remained in question. Here at the Trust we can only wait to present our case for ancient woodland – with resource implications and financial costs to us mounting all the while – and watch while the merry-go-round spins on.
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