I’ll stand in front of the bulldozers if I have to – Sipson

20.1.2009 (Evening Standard)

by David Cohen

IN the village of Sipson, thousands of lawyers’ letters have started falling
through the letterboxes. They talk of “compulsory purchase” and “compensation”
and “acting on behalf of” residents “to secure the best price” for their properties.
But their arrival, just four days after the Government controversially gave BAA
the go-ahead to build a third runway at Heathrow, a decision that spells demolition
for the 1,000-year-old hamlet and its 700 homes*, is seen as indecently hasty.

“Like vultures they are,” says one mother, popping into the King William IV pub
to say hello on her way to pick up her daughter from the local Heathrow Primary

“It will never happen. There’ll be legal challenges to drag it out until next
year’s general election and then the Tories will win and put a stop to this madness,”
she says of the Government’s plan to fast-track planning permission so that bulldozers
can start flattening Sipson by early 2011.   But Sean Walters, 45, the landlord
of this 400-year-old pub, who faces losing his livelihood as well as his three-bedroom,
semi-detached home of 18 years, takes a different view.

“BAA will move like greased lightning,” he says. “Look at all the lawyers’ letters
arriving already. It’s all teed up. And even if they don’t, you’d be a fool to
rely on the Tories: they’re likely to do a U-turn as soon as they get into power.

 “Make no mistake, I’m absolutely fuming at the way this community has been shafted,”
he adds. “All the history here the wonderful stories. Did you know that Ted Heath
once had a pint in here? And that Sir Bobby Robson played football with my four-year-old
son in the car park. The Chelsea footballers used to come down. Until a few years
ago, their training ground was half-a-mile up the road and back in the Nineties
Glen Hoddle would sit down with the lads and conduct post-mortems on matches in
that corner. Magic it was! This place has such memories.”

Sean shakes his head. “It’s been my livelihood for 16 years. But the way I see
it, it’s as good as gone. My house this pub… it will all be bloody tarmac. We
have to face reality. With last week’s decision, this village is doomed. Bloody
doomed. And there’s nothing we can do.”

Greenpeace has vowed to turn Sipson into “the battlefield of our generation”.    
Some villagers echo this defiance but others say that it’s time to end the uncertainty
that has blighted their lives since 2002 and bow to the inevitable.

For a village so close to Heathrow’s northern boundary and within sight of its
air-traffic control tower, the first thing that strikes you about Sipson is how
surprisingly peaceful it is. Although the roar and whine of planes taking off
every few minutes provides a constant background drone, it soon recedes to become
white noise and the industrial-standard double-glazed windows mean that indoors
it’s pleasantly quiet.

Sipson also retains a rural feel.   Up until 1946, when Heathrow opened as a commercial
airport, this was fertile, agricultural land where fruit and vegetables were farmed
then taken to market in Covent Garden. The first mention of Sipson goes back to
Anglo-Saxon times. The neighbouring villages of Harlington and Harmondsworth are
mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, with Sipson referred to 25 years later
in a land transaction.

In the 1700s Sipson’s proximity to the Bath Road made it was a notorious haunt
for highwaymen but, with most of the houses and shops being rebuilt since the
Fifties, almost nothing of this history or of earlier architecture is evident.

At the heart of Sipson today lies Heathrow Primary, a school that has served
the village for 130 years. Rated outstanding by Ofsted, its hall is used to host
public meetings fighting airport expansion. Like the village, the school was once
almost entirely white but in recent years has become ethnically diverse – with
half its pupils speaking English as a second language. According to Ofsted it
has created “a very harmonious community” that’s a model of inclusivity.

John Hobbs, 63, has been head teacher for 28 years and is the longest-serving
head in the borough of Hillingdon. “I am teaching children whose parents were
my pupils which tells you something about how many people have remained in the
area,” he says. He has increased the roll from 140 to 320 pupils and today the
school is heavily oversubscribed despite the threat hanging over it. “We’re expanding,”
he adds bullishly. “We’re building an extra classroom to accommodate our increased
reception intake.

“The plans show Terminal 6 being built right on top of my office but at the moment
we’re operating as if last week’s decision by the Government was never even taken.
If the third runway does go ahead, it will be a tragedy: these children will lose
their school and two-thirds of them will lose their homes as well. They’ll be
scattered and lose their friends and the entire world they’ve grown up in will
be destroyed. But I refuse to accept it’s a done deal. I still think we can stop
the airport in its tracks.”

Mr Hobbs admits that the school’s relationship with Heathrow – by far the biggest
employer in the area – is complex. The school used to have good relations with
BAA, supplying pupils to sing Christmas carols at corporate events but since the
Spanish giant Ferrovial bought BAA in 2006, “relations have become frayed”.    
However, the school still has its football kit and prospectus sponsored by British
Airways, with whom it has “a supportive relationship”.

Mahesh Sharma, 11, a pupil at the school, says he’s depressed. “I feel really
down, and I see my parents being quite stressed, too, and it upsets me.   I have
been with my friends and parents to campaigns. It feels good to see all those
groups like Greanpeace and Plane Stupid are with us.     It makes us feel that we’re
not alone.  But I fear that once the Government make their decision, that’s it.”

Eighty-year-old historian and local activist Philip Sherwood says that history
is on the residents’ side. “Sipson was threatened in 1952 with a third runway,
but the Government abandoned the idea when they ran out of money. The aviation
mafia never give up, their tenacity is extraordinary but they haven’t succeeded
in destroying Sipson for 60 years, and with the climate of public opinion turning
against them, I don’t think it will happen this time either.”

How far are local residents prepared to go? “I’d be quite happy to stand in front
of the bulldozers, should it come to it,” says Mr Sherwood.

Mr Hobbs is similarly determined. “I will not take any illegal action but we
will totally oppose the building of the third runway through direct action and
all legal means possible. I have made our school available to groups like NOTRAG
and at a meeting on Saturday we had one parent get up and say she wouldn’t move
out of her house and they’d have to drag her out when the time came. People are
not panicking. We will stand firm. Not one of my staff have left and pupils keep
on applying

It’s a bitter irony that BA’s vociferous lobbying for a third runway could see
the school it supports wiped out but many locals admit they are similarly compromised.
Barry Raborn, 50, a former pupil of Heathrow Primary, is a flight dispatcher at
Terminal 2. His job, he says, is to take care of the aircraft from the minute
they arrive on the stand to the minute they push back to take off.

Barry, who earns £25,000 a year, feels torn because he wants to see the airport
succeed but doesn’t believe in the arguments for expansion. He feels “punched
in the stomach” at the prospect of him and his 82-year-old mother losing their

“I was born in Sipson and I grew up here,” he says. “Back in the Sixties and
Seventies, this village was a real community. We had a local policeman who rode
around on his bicycle and everybody knew everybody. There was a lot of agricultural
land with orchards and we’d go scrumping for apples.

“At the time, my dad worked on the customs side checking contraband at Heathrow
and I always felt a love for the airport because it had enabled my dad to get
a mortgage and buy our house and raise his family. In 1957, he bought a three-bedroom
semi-detached house brand new but now that house will be flattened and I feel
gutted. We’re in the process of having it valued and I expect it’s worth about
£250,000. I’ll be OK but this is devastating for my elderly mother. Where is she
supposed to go? And her friends, people she’s known all her life, they’ll be scattered
all over London.”

Not all residents feel strongly about saving Sipson. Kirsten Crawford, 39, is
a teaching assistant at Heathrow Primary and her two children, Daniel, 11, and
Natasha, eight, are pupils there, too. She faces losing her job, her children’s
school and her home, a three-bedroom terrace that she and her husband bought in
1993 for £60,000.

“Losing our house is not what my husband and I expected to be doing right now,”
says Kirsten, who explains that the Government is offering residents market value
in addition to paying for their moving costs. “We’re already seeing the slow erosion
of the community. Over 10 properties in our street have been let out in the last
year because the owners have felt trapped and unable to sell, and the result is
that a more transient population is moving in.

“After so many years of being unable to sell, what we crave is some certainty.
Realistically, I think the third runway is inevitable now and I think that David
Cameron is just peddling false hope.”

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* The 700 homes are not all in Sipson.   About 590 homes are in Sipson – and around  110
in Harmondsworth