Few places in England are more haunting than the Kent marshes. They are a desolate, liminal place where land melts into sea and history floats on geography: a place where smugglers lurked, where Spitfires once swirled like starlings.
Here, buttressing the marshes where Dickens had Magwitch confront Pip, and where Derek Jarman lived in his famous poppy-strewn retreat, Prospect Cottage, lies the peninsula of Dungeness, England’s last line of defence against the Channel – a unique, denuded moonscape.
For naturalists, this corner of England has assumed totemic importance. The peninsula’s lichen-rich waves of shingle offer sanctuary to an internationally important variety of wildlife. Newts, leeches, butterflies and bees are common; the abundant birdlife includes Bewick’s and mute swans, bitterns and shovelers; the area is home to rare species of leafhopper and grass-fly, and is the only place in Britain inhabited by the Sussex emerald moth.
Its rich biodiversity is recognised in a bewildering array of perfunctory but significant initials.
The peninsula is a National Nature Reserve (NNR) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Parts are also protected under European law as a Special Protection Area (SPA) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
Conservationists see this environmental ring-fencing as immutable. But not everyone agrees.
Next month, after years of wrangling, the government will have to decide whether it backs plans to transform the region’s tiny airport, a few minutes’ drive from the small marshes town of Lydd, into a major aviation gateway that will fly millions of passengers a year overseas on budget airlines.
And its decision will have ramifications throughout the south-east, where the exponential rise in air traffic has made the issue of airport expansion – not to mention the creation of the “Boris Island” airport proposed for the Thames Estuary – increasingly contentious.
Supporters say the redevelopment of the airport will bring prosperity to a region that is stagnating. “There are no jobs here for our children,” one shopkeeper in the town tells me. “This place is slowly dying. It’s one of the poorest places in the south-east, and young people are moving out. We need the airport to put this place back on the map.”
To him and others who support the project, the airport’s owner, a billionaire Saudi sheikh called Fahad Bin Saleh Mohammed al-Athel, is an exotic entrepreneur who can transform the marshes’ sinking fortunes.
And they believe they have the government on their side. Chancellor George Osborne captured the mood last November when he attacked the “gold-plating of EU rules on things like habitats” for stifling business interests.
Now the growing fear among environmental groups is that the current economic turbulence will be used as a justification for sending the concrete mixers into some of the country’s most heavily protected areas. The decision whether to approve Lydd’s expansion will reveal whether this fear is justified.
“What happens at Lydd will determine how prepared we are to look after the best bits of the British countryside,” says André Farrar of the RSPB. “Dungeness is probably the most heavily designated place in Europe. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.”
Currently Lydd Airport is little more than a landing strip used by the odd executive jet to ferry fewer than 1,000 passengers a year abroad. But half a century ago it brought glamour to the marshes. The first airport to be finished after the war, Lydd Ferryfield, as it was then called, flew motorists and their vehicles to Le Touquet in France. Film stars such as Diana Dors, Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart used Lydd, and the royals gave it their imprimatur with an official visit.
It was the development of cross-Channel ferries, the rise of rival airports like Heathrow and Gatwick, and more recently the Channel Tunnel, that did for Lydd’s ambitions and proved runway hubris is not confined to modernity. Today the airport cuts a forlorn image, resembling a military landing strip attended by a squat, white-washed terminal that looks as if it would be better deployed framing a checkpoint in a demilitarised zone.
Sheikh Fahad al-Athel’s London Ashford Airport (LAA) Ltd wants to bring back the glory days with a gleaming glass-and-steel passenger terminal.
Planning documents submitted by LAA show the company hopes to expand the airport’s capacity to 500,000 passengers a year and then, ultimately, 2m. The runway would be extended by 300m so that it can be used commercially by larger jets; the company’s website adds: “Any destination within a 1,000-nautical-mile radius will be possible.”
The scheme’s supporters, who include the local Tory MP, Damian Collins, say this would relieve pressure on Gatwick and other south-eastern airports. But many locals, horrified that the tranquillity of their historic town, which boasts buildings half a millennium old, is threatened, have mobilised in opposition. A referendum found 66% of the local population are against the airport’s expansion.
Shepway District Council, which was initially responsible for granting approval, held a series of public inquiry sessions. The No camp, which gave itself the name Lydd Airport Action Group, argued that the council was required under European law to consider the impact on the surrounding wildlife.
The airport’s owner was obliged to present a scientific case, in conjunction with other interested bodies such as the RSPB and the government’s advisory body, Natural England. If this “appropriate assessment” found the airport would have a negative impact on the protected sites, or even if its owner was unable to demonstrate that it would not have an adverse effect, the expansion could not go ahead.
The council commissioned an environmental consultancy, Bureau Veritas, to undertake the assessment. Written by an ecologist named Kevin Webb, the assessment heavily influenced the council’s planning officer when, in July 2009, he recommended that the council reject the application.
Then something curious happened.
Following representations from the airport, Bureau Veritas was asked to review its report. A second assessment, also written by Webb, insisted the airport’s owners could not prove the Special Protection Area (SPA) would be left unscathed if the expansion went ahead. On 19 February 2010, guided by the second assessment, the planning officer again recommended a refusal.
Twelve days later, following a full meeting, Shepway District Council approved the expansion of Lydd Airport.
According to government estimates, the number of passenger journeys from UK airports is forecast to rise from 211 million in 2010 to 335m in 2030, and then to 470m by 2050, and the south-east will bear most of the increase.
The region’s airports are already anticipating this growth. Manston airport near Margate has applied to run night flights. This April, easyJet will start operating services at Southend, a key step in the Essex airport’s plan to be flying 2 million passengers a year by 2020.
This is consistent with the claims made in the 2003 Air Transport White Paper, which influences existing policy, “to make the best possible use of the existing runways at the major south-east airports”.
The mass influx of people flying in to watch the Olympics this year has strengthened arguments for the development of airports across the south-east, especially as expansion at the region’s established airports has been limited. Plans for a third runway at Heathrow were scrapped when the coalition came to power in 2010 as prime minister David Cameron sought to establish his green credentials; airport operator BAA withdrew its application for a second runway at Stansted in the same year, and expansion at Gatwick has been ruled out until 2019.
Fears that there is now a looming shortage of runways in the south-east have prompted both London mayor Boris Johnson and architect Lord Foster to push separate but similar plans to build a major new airport in the Thames Estuary. As with Lydd, campaigners argue that the site of “Boris Island” is an important breeding ground for birds such as avocets and marsh harriers. Friends of the Earth warns that the airport “would have a devastating impact on local communities and the environment”.
If the government is correct and people will fly more, not less, in the future, the politically explosive question is how this can be reconciled with the UK’s commitments to reduce carbon emissions.
But those opposing airport development question whether the claims made for expansion are valid, given that Stansted, which sought a second runway, is currently operating below capacity. The 211 million passengers who passed through the UK’s airports last year are considerably fewer than the 2007 peak of 240 million.
Sarah Clayton, of campaign group AirportWatch, points out that aviation fuel currently costs around $130 a barrel, 16% more than a year ago, and in the long run it will only rise. With a price of $150 a barrel, passenger numbers start to fall significantly, according to economic modelling. And as oil becomes ever more scarce, prices could increase dramatically – a major threat to smaller airports predicated on a budget-airline model. “Yes, there’s lots of oil left, but it’s hard to extract without using an awful lot of energy,” says Clayton.
Smaller airports like Lydd and Manston are already loss-making. And Lydd, with its winding country lanes some 15 miles from the Eurostar terminal at Ashford International, is not an easy place to reach, throwing into question whether it would attract sufficient numbers of passengers.
Peter Hobbs, chief executive of Kent Channel Chamber of Commerce, enthuses that in Sheikh Fahad al-Athel, Lydd has a “very positive and vibrant investor” ready to risk his own money to develop the airport. “The airport would act as a catalyst for attracting better roads,” Hobbs insists. A railway line between Ashford and Lydd, axed as part of Dr Beeching’s wholesale network cuts, could, he says, be reopened.
Hobbs suggests the region’s tourism industry would improve while the airport, surrounded by wide open spaces that are easy to build on, could become an important hi-tech hub for aviation-servicing companies. “The argument comes down to whether there’s a future here for the next generation,” Hobbs says. “What is going to happen to the marshes? Do we want them to be flourishing, with better jobs and better services? If there’s no work, the place will simply become a habitat for birds.”
Clayton disagrees. “Everyone talks about the jobs airports create, but every airline is trying to cut jobs,” she says. “They are doing everything possible to limit human interaction. And the sort of jobs expansion creates – things like baggage handling – are hardly careers.”
In its submission to the inquiry, the Lydd Airport Action Group also expressed scepticism at claims made for job creation: “Even if LAA achieves a throughput of 500,000 people per annum it will remain loss-making and only generate 200 to 210 gross jobs by 2024/2028.”
The opening of a new Sainsbury’s in the area a couple of years ago created 300 jobs.
Talk to most people about Dungeness – “the Ness” to locals – and their first reference is usually to its nuclear power stations, two concrete leviathans located less than three miles from the airport, stoically facing the English Channel like Easter Island statues. Prosaically named A, one of the power stations is being decommissioned while the other, B, is due to close in six years’ time.
No one is sure of the risks associated with siting a major airport next to a nuclear power station in a region rich in birdlife. The modelling used to evaluate the probability of an air crash is flawed, according to nuclear-safety campaigners, who warn that the heightened chance of bird strike in the area could trigger a chain of events leading to an accident at the power stations.
LAA declines to reveal whether it has employed specialists to assess the risk. In its submission, Lydd Airport Action Group, headed by Louise Barton, a former analyst for a major investment bank, claimed the expansion could lead to safety compromises as a result of “tensions between an airport operator needing to control birds and organisations wishing to preserve birds”.
Barton, who has lived near Lydd since 1994, admits she is a nimby, horrified that “one of the most peaceful places in England” is under threat. “They call it the fifth continent down here,” she says. “It’s not a particularly beautiful place in the classical sense. It’s a place that grows on you. It’s flat and has big skies.”
A series of freedom of information requests lodged by Barton revealed that text in the environmental reports had been changed by the council, which lawfully “cherry-picked” evidence in order to produce a positive assessment.
It also revealed that on the eve of the vote, the council had chosen not to circulate a letter from Natural England criticising LAA’s legal arguments and concluding that “the application should be refused”. A spokeswoman for Shepway District Council explains that the council does not circulate copies of late planning representations to councillors, but insisted the letter’s contents were reported verbally to councillors. “A draft appropriate assessment was carried out by our ecological advisers and also a shadow appropriate assessment by the ecological advisers to the airport,” she says. “In many areas there was agreement among the ecological advisers, but in some areas the advice was different. Having considered all issues at length, the council made a positive appropriate assessment combining assessments from both sets of advisers. The council took legal advice that this was an acceptable course of action.”
The Lydd Airport Action Group cried fix. Webb, the ecologist who had written the reports opposing the application, was also dismayed. In an email to Barton, he declared: “I am happy to appear as a witness… I would like the opportunity to state publicly that I believe the development if allowed to proceed would have a detrimental effect.”
Amid the ensuing furore, Natural England referred the decision up the chain to central government. A recommendation is expected to find its way to the in-tray of Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, who has the final say on contentious planning issues, within a fortnight.
If Pickles approves the airport’s expansion he will be going against the government’s adviser, Natural England, Shepway’s planning officers, the majority of Lydd’s residents, the scientific consensus on the need to reduce carbon emissions, the prime minister’s perceived green credentials and the coalition’s belief in empowering communities as enshrined in its much-vaunted localism act.
But few will be surprised if he does. The government’s controversial decision to press ahead with High Speed Two, the new London to the north railway line, has been welcomed by many pro-business groups but is seen by conservationists as a portent of things to come.
Barton and the Lydd Airport Action Group have vowed to fight on in the courts if the decision goes against them and ignores European habitat laws. They claim the battle is about more than nuclear safety, overcrowded skies, carbon footprints and preserving wildlife.
“People believe there would be just a few more planes in the sky above Romney Marsh, but they don’t have any conception of the impact it would have,” Barton says. “The whole character of the place would change because, as studies show, airports lead to urbanisation.”
If so, a unique landscape described by Dickens as a “dark, flat wilderness” would be lost for ever. And with it, the certainty that the protection afforded much of Britain’s landscape is irrevocable.