Heathrow rebel alliance is cleared for take-off

18.1.2009 (Sunday Times)

An odd band of environmentalists, Tories and local residents are finding novel
ways to oppose the third runway


At 11.49am yesterday, the departures lounge at Heathrow terminal 5 seemed unusually
swollen with travellers shuffling around in the check-in area. A clue to what
was up was the number of people staring guiltily at the ceiling, of eyes meeting
darting eyes, and an atmosphere prickling with a sense of expectation.

Precisely a minute later, a shout went up as overcoats were wrenched off and
thrown into the air. A Japanese couple looked on bemused as the terminal erupted
around them. Small balloons, bouncy balls and items of clothing were flung upwards
as the crowd roared: "No third runway!"

The runway may have been approved by Geoff Hoon, the transport secretary, last
week after months of procrastination, but this "flash mob" of about 400 protesters,
organised via social networking sites, showed that the fight was far from over.

"I feel cheated by the government," said Catherine Lalani, from Putney, west
London.   "How dare the government tell us to change all our lightbulbs and then
do something like this?"

While the government’s decision was a bitter disappointment, among some of the
opponents there was a tangible sense of relief after so many months of ministerial
dither and delay. "Now, at last, we’ve actually got something to fight against,"
said one.

When Hoon stood up in the Commons last week to announce Heathrow’s expansion,
his statement was peppered with environmental concessions, but the figures told
their own story.    By 2030, total flights will have risen by about 220,000 a year
to 700,000.   There will be a corresponding rise in greenhouse emissions, with
the airport predicted by one lobby group {WDM]  to emit more carbon dioxide than

Hoon’s statement lit the touchpaper of a wide-ranging protest movement.   It is
a campaign that will be waged by a hotchpotch but effective army, from the front
bench of the Tory opposition, to long-suffering families living under flight paths
in west London and Greenpeace’s direct action demonstrators.

Justine Greening, the Tory MP for Putney, who has led the opposition against
Heathrow expansion, said:   "There’s going to be a lot of direct action from a
lot of very unusual characters.   This is not your typical coalition of activists.    
It’s going to be very embarrassing for the government."

A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times shows the strength of the opposition.   The national poll, of
more than 2,000 people, carried out after the decision to go ahead with the third
runway was announced, shows only 29% support it, with 42% opposed.   The rest of those in the sample are undecided.

Opponents have shown their ingenuity by buying up a field on the site of the
proposed runway and dividing it into more than 20,000 lots.   Buyers include the
actress Emma Thompson, MPs and an Inuit purchaser who is said to live "somewhere
in the Arctic".   The compulsory purchase process could become long and involved.

The government plans a short, sharp battle against a legal challenge, hoping
its streamlined process for approving major projects could see it ready by 2015.
But with the Tories opposed, and some dissenters even within the cabinet, what
are the prospects of the third runway getting off the drawing board?

Colin Matthews, BAA’s chief executive, along with senior figures in the London
business community, was quick to congratulate the government on the Heathrow decision.  
"This opens the door to Heathrow becoming a truly world-class hub airport, and
to the UK maintaining the direct connections to the rest of the world on which
our prosperity depends," he said.   The Institute of Directors said the runway
would be "vital to maintaining the UK’s economic competitiveness".

In the affluent suburbs of west London, where the drone of aircraft will become
an increasing irritation, there was little to celebrate.   Civil Aviation Authority
(CAA) documents show the proposed landing path for the third runway slicing across swathes of Kensington, Hammersmith
and Chiswick.

The route, significantly further north than the current landing paths, will have
as many as 260 aircraft coming in to land every day. Thousands of homes will be affected. BAA has also predicted an increase of as
much as 30% in night flights, from 11pm to 7am.

Among homeowners a new breed of runway rebel is being born.  Jocelyn Mason, 35,
an osteopath who lives in Chiswick, is so concerned for the welfare of her baby
and her two-year-old, she is considering moving home.  "I’ve lived under a flight
path before, and I’m not prepared to put up
with that level of noise again," she said.

"After all the campaigning and consultation, there are so many people who are
against it, and yet the government has refused to listen to us.   What was the
point of consulting us if they were just going to do it anyway?   Makes you wonder:
what will they listen to?"     Officials at the Department for Transport (DfT) try
to assuage angry residents with assurances that the noise footprint of Heathrow
will diminish by 2030, thanks to quieter planes.

They point out that areas such as Chiswick and Hammersmith are not even predicted
to be in the "57 decibel contour" within which noise is considered a significant
irritation when averaged out over a 16-hour day.

Opponents say that ministers have slanted the facts and figures in their favour,
by using optimistic projections and rejecting findings likely to undermine their
case.   Campaigners also point out that 80% of aircraft predicted for 2030 are
not yet in service and in some cases not even in production.   They say there is
no guarantee they will ever be built.

The government is also accused of ignoring the findings of a study [ANASE] that
it commissioned showing that residents can be perturbed by average noise levels
at just 50 decibels.   At these levels, west London suburbs and swathes of land
to the north that are under new take-off paths would be affected by annoying and
increased levels of noise. Ministers rejected the findings, rather than calculate
the impact of the third runway using a lower noise threshold.

Nicholas Botterill, deputy leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, said: "They
have skewed the figures and, whatever they say, many more people across London
are going to have to put up with more planes and more noise.   To suggest otherwise
is spurious."

It is not just on noise levels that the government is accused of ignoring the
facts.  As The Sunday Times reported last year documents released under freedom
of information laws show that the DfT and BAA collaborated to manipulate the figures
for the environmental targets until they got the results they wanted.  They denied
wrongdoing and said it was a necessary part of the process.

Environmental groups are highly sceptical that the government can permit the
third runway while still hitting its target of reducing UK carbon emissions by
80% by 2050.   John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, said the claim of
environmentally friendly airport expansion was "greenwash".   He said: "It will
make meeting our targets almost impossible.

Despite the fury of environmental groups, Hoon’s concessions took the sting out
of the proposals for at least some Labour MPs.

Perhaps most significantly, the plan to introduce "mixed mode" — under which
the two existing Heathrow runways would be used for take-offs and landings at
the same time — was dropped. Mixed mode would have meant continuous noise from
aircraft across large parts of London and had been bitterly opposed by local councils
and residents.

Hoon also pledged an initial cap on extra flights, which will be set at 120,000 a year.     Total flights would be permitted to rise to more than 700,000 in 2030 only
if the aviation industry could prove it was cutting emissions.   Only planes with
the latest engine technology would be able to use the extra slots for the runway.  
The Civil Aviation Authority and the Environment Agency would be able to block
the opening of the runway if it breached noise and pollution limits.   He also
announced plans for a high-speed London-Birmingham rail link via Heathrow.

Credit for many of the concessions was due to a backbench rebellion among Labour
MPs and two key cabinet figures, Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, and Ed
Miliband, the climate change secretary.

According to one insider, Miliband and Benn dismissed Hoon’s initial concessions:  
"Geoff first offered to link Heathrow to a new high-speed rail line.   But Ed and
Hilary pointed out that he had already announced that one.   Then he talked about
money for electric car technology and it was pointed out that this money had already
been announced."

Hoon’s key compromises on noise and pollution came in a phone call to Benn on
Tuesday evening.   The concession that the third runway would initially operate
at only half capacity was also added late in the day, as was a clause that the
independent Committee on Climate Change, headed by Lord Adair Turner, would monitor aviation’s carbon emissions.

By the time the announcement was made, Miliband and Benn had accepted they were
never going to kill the third runway, but felt they had done just enough to maintain
some credibility with the greens.

The prospect of a successful legal action challenging the expansion may have
diminished because the government’s concessions mean it has a greater chance of
hitting the environmental targets.

However, lawyers will meet in London with officials from councils and the mayor’s office
.   They will be poring over the DfT documents supporting Hoon’s statement to
assess the merits of a case.

If a legal challenge does not materialise, or proves unsuccessful, environmental
groups such as Greenpeace and Plane Stupid will focus much of their energies on
direct action.   Residents in homes earmarked for the bulldozers on the site of
the third runway are already being briefed on how to resist the authorities.

Some groups are working on "adopt-a-resident" schemes, under which activists would move into the spare room of houses under threat
and help their owners with household chores, while pledging to put themselves
in front of the bulldozers if they came.   Others are encouraging residents to
divide their gardens into small parcels to sell off to activists in order further
to frustrate the compulsory purchase process.

Tracy Howard, 34, a mother of two who lives in Sipson, the village that will
be destroyed by the Heathrow expansion, said she was ready to join.  "I’m not
only willing to get arrested; I’m intending to," she said.     "I have never been
in trouble with the law before but what have I got to lose now?"

Direct action will ensure publicity for the cause, and the seriousness with which
it is taken was underlined by Hoon’s criticism yesterday of Thompson, when he
contrasted her opposition to the Heathrow expansion on environmental grounds and
the frequency of the flights she took to Hollywood.     However, it is highly unlikely
to derail the planning process.

There is, however, one possible deal-breaker in addition to what must be considered
the relatively low risk of successful legal action: a new Conservative government.

Theresa Villiers, the Conservative shadow transport secretary, has pledged that
a Tory government would stop "this environmental disaster" if elected at a poll
that must be held in the next 18 months.     Boris Johnson, the London mayor, is
calling for a runway in the Thames estuary and has appointed Douglas Oakervee,
the leading British engineer behind Hong Kong’s island airport, to investigate
the idea.     An all-party parliamentary group has also been formed to look into

The alliance of direct action environmental groups such as Greenpeace with the
Conservative party might seem a strange one. But if the Conservatives remain resolute
in their opposition to the third runway, they represent the best chance of finally
quashing the plans.


United against the third runway

2M Group Grouping of local councils in west London that represented 2m people when formed.
Now represents 4m. Backed by the London mayor, it is at the forefront of efforts
to take legal action against the government.

Climate Rush Inspired by the actions of the suffragettes 100 years ago, the group says it
is dedicated to peaceful direct action. Headed by Tamsin Omond, who has become
a poster girl for the antiaviation movement.   Has "fluffier" tactics than Plane
Stupid: it held an Edwardian picnic at Heathrow last week.

Climate Suffra-jets A splinter group within Climate Rush that was accused of vandalising glass doors
by throwing bricks at the entrance to the Department for Transport in London.

Greenpeace UK British branch of activist environmental network, headed by John Sauven, a suave
political insider.

HACAN ClearSkies The antiairport expansion group headed by John Stewart, veteran campaigner and
long-time leader of the local residents’ group.

NoTRAG The residents’ organisation, supported by Hillingdon council. Includes many
residents of Sipson, who will lose their homes.

Plane Stupid Anti-aviation group formed in 2005 and funded mainly by Mark Constantine, the
multi-millionaire head of Lush, a global cosmetics chain, and individuals sympathetic
to the green movement. Cut through the perimeter fence at Stansted airport in
Essex last month