Heathrow’s third runway is grounded but expansion spreads to regions
Battle against expansion is far from over when Liverpool, Bristol and Manchester
airports have ambitious plans, say campaigners
By Adam Vaughan
On the face of it, yesterday was a very good day for campaigners fighting UK
airport expansion. Airport operator BAA bowed to the inevitable and formally scrapped the third runway at Heathrow, while activists from Plane Stupid temporarily halted flights at Manchester airport in protest at its expansion.
But as leading anti-aviation expansion activists admit, such victories throw
up dilemmas for the movement’s future. With Heathrow won, and Gatwick and Stansted expansion ruled out by the new government, how the story unfolds at airport perimeter fences and in the media is unclear.
“It will be more difficult for us in many respects,” said Leo Murray, a spokesperson
for Plane Stupid. “The big beast is dead. While Heathrow and Stansted show we
can win, we haven’t won yet. The fight now is going to be messier and more regional.”
The regional picture is more like a hydra than a dragon. While many proposed
airport expansions are stalled, an extended terminal and increased passenger capacity
was approved for Bristol airport yesterday, the terminal at Liverpool John Lennon airport is midway through expansion
and Manchester has ambitious expansion plans. Airportwatch lists 15 other airport expansions “of particular concern at the moment”. The limited news coverage of the Manchester
protest yesterday also throws up the challenge regional protesters face getting
the attention of a national- and London-centric media.
Another issue for anti-aviation campaigners is that the issue could be dropping
off the wider climate movement’s radar. “Over the last few months the climate
movement has been taking stock and looking at where it will put its energy and
focus,” said Joss Garman, a campaigner at Greenpeace and former Plane Stupid activist. “Increasingly it looks like momentum will be on tar sands, BP and RBS [which
is being targeted by Climate Camp]”. A switch from expansion at Heathrow to regional airports won’t be missed
by activists, he says, but it makes sense for campaigners to focus on the biggest
sources of greenhouse gas emissions – which is now the energy sector.
Certainly, the time when airport expansion campaigners were feted by the media as young, attractive and bravado-filled, seems long ago. But Murray says this change is a sign of success – aviation
is now on the political and campaigning agenda. “Before Plane Stupid, none of
the big NGOs had aviation campaigners. Now they all do. We pushed aviation on
to the agenda and made people take positions on it.”
Both Garman and Murray agree the big fight is not just stopping individual airports’
expansion but influencing overall aviation policy. One key impact there was the
high court’s recent criticism of the last government’s reliance on a 2003 aviation white paper, which will
impact on any review of aviation policy undertaken by the coalition.
A dramatic 7.3% fall in passenger numbers last year will also impact on government thinking. And more recently, the ash cloud and
BA strikes have put a dampener on passenger numbers. “The ash cloud and strikes
have grounded far more planes than Plane Stupid ever did,” admits Murray, who
says the group considered actions when the ash cloud grounded flights, but decided
But the fact remains that the public is, largely, not changing its flying habits
– fewer than one in five people are trying to fly less for the environment. Prominent green politicians and scientists such as former climate secretary
Ed Miliband and Nasa’s James Hansen have admitted as much. Miliband defended air travel for the masses and Hansen told Heathrow protesters he wouldn’t join them because coal power was
a greater priority.
This doesn’t deter campaigners such as Murray, who says that Plane Stupid is
not worried about alienating people. “It’s not a beauty contest, it’s about being
right,” he said. “History will vindicate us – in fact, I think it already has.”
The next steps in that history will take place in the courts and at airports
across the country. Next month the so-called Climate 9 who disrupted Aberdeen airport last year will be tried in court, while Murray warns yesterday’s protest was just “a shot
across the bows” in a larger campaign against expansion at Manchester.