Lydd highlights battle between airport expansion and eco-concerns

10.4.2010   (Guardian)

by Owen Bowcott 

Opposition is growing to plans for up to 500,000 passengers a year, despite boost
to jobs

 The meandering approach road to Lydd airport weaves its way across Romney Marsh,
past reed–fringed ditches and mounds of farm silage. Skylarks rise from the long
grass beside the temporary control tower.

Inside the leaky, 50-year-old terminal building, the view from the Biggles Bar
takes in low-lying nature reserves behind the shingle beach, the Ministry of Defence
firing ranges and Dungeness
nuclear power station.

In the 1950s, before roll-on, roll-off ferries, film stars such as Diana Dors,
Humphrey Bogart and Gregory Peck posed on the tarmac as their open-top cars were
driven on to Bristol Freighter aircraft for the cross-channel hop to the casinos
and racetracks at Le Touquet. Now owned by Sheikh Fahad al-Athel, a Saudi businessman,
London Ashford airport – as it is known – is aiming to revive its aviation glory.
Planning permission has been granted to extend the runway to handle larger planes
and build a new terminal for up to 500,000 passengers a year. Numbers could rise
to two million travellers annually.

The decision by Shepway district council in Kent to support the application last
month is the latest in a series of airport expansion schemes made possible by
air traffic moving out from the capital’s congested international hubs at Heathrow,
Gatwick and Stansted. London Southend airport, owned by the freight company Eddie
Stobart, has received government approval for a similar development.

The two to one vote by Shepway councillors after a seven-hour debate – which
finished at 2am – has hardened battle lines. The council planning officials’ recommendation
to reject the application was overturned. Climate-change campaigners and environmentalists
defending wildlife sanctuaries now confront flying enthusiasts and those eager
to bring jobs to an area with few large employers.

Posters depicting an airliner plunging towards Dungeness B nuclear power station
with the caption “60 Seconds to Disaster” have been erected in Lydd. The outgoing local Conservative MP, Michael Howard,
spoke in favour of the scheme at the council session, but John Denham, the secretary
of state for communities and local government, sensitive to the scale of opposition,
has suspended the process while he decides whether to order a public inquiry.
A decision is due on 11 June.

“Those posters show far larger planes than we intend to bring into Lydd,” said
Tim Maskens, the manager of air traffic services at the airport. “We will only
have Airbus A319 and Boeing 737s for medium-haul flights to Spain, Italy, France
and perhaps as far away as Greece. The airport was given permission to expand
in the late 1980s, but an economic downturn and the Gulf War meant it was never
pursued. The potential has always been there.

Current policy is to use existing landing capacity wherever possible before building
Boris Island
[the mayor of London’s proposal for an airport in the Thames estuary] or Heathrow’s
third runway. Smaller aircraft – 50 seaters – are already being forced out of
the larger airports by higher landing fees.”

With a shuttle bus to the new hi-speed rail link at Ashford, Maskens maintained,
journey times to central London would be barely an hour. “The hassle of modern
flying is getting out of order. Where else is the airport parking free and the
check-in only half an hour? This is about going back to easier days of aviation.”

Lydd’s only regular commercial flight is to Le Touquet; passengers are airborne
for 20 minutes. A service to Jersey begins in July.   Most of the traffic is twin-seater
private planes and executive jets.

The airport was open by the duke of Edinburgh in 1956 and at the height of its
success Silver City airways, Dan-Air and other firms were carrying 250,000 people
a year. Business collapsed in the 1970s. Sheikh al-Athel spotted its possibilities
and purchased a controlling interest in 2001. As a director of Al Bilad, he came
to attention for his role as a fixer for Saudi Arabia’s multi-billion Al Yamamah
arms deal.

He has invested £25m and will put a further £25m into the expansion project which
will create 300 permanent jobs. Ownership of the airport and an adjoining golf
club are held through companies in the British Virgin Islands and Riyadh, according
to Lydd Airport Action Group. “A financial investor based in Saudi Arabia will
have little or no interest in preserving the special qualities of Romney Marsh,”
the group’s organiser, Louise Barton, has claimed.

Opinions among residents appears evenly divided. Many welcome the prospect of
employment at a time when the future of the nuclear industry at Dungeness is uncertain.
“It’s a good idea,” said Julie Downham, a care nurse working in Lydd. “It would
be good for jobs and those local businesses that are left.”

Martin Seare, an author who writes about the paranormal, described himself as
a Martian, or Marshian, from Romney Marsh. “The noise and the environmental damage will be terrible,” he warned. “This is
our countryside and they are going to build a large airport spilling out dirty
toxins that will kill the land.”

There were more than 12,000 objections to the scheme, including from Greenpeace,
the RSPB, British Energy, the Campaign to Protect  Rural England, Kent Wildlife
Trust and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. The Nuclear Installations
Inspectorate did not, however, object.

“There’s an amazing collection of wildlife in our reserves on the Dungeness peninsula,”
said André Farrer, the RSPB’s protected areas campaigner. “We have been neighbours of Lydd, but the increase from 3,000 to 500,000 passengers
a year is worrying. Nitrogen from planes will change the local biology; birds
do not tolerate large airports. This is one of our most important wildlife sites.
It’s a litmus test: does
biodiversity matter in the 21st century?”