A story of spirit: Independent article on The Heathrow clearances

February 23, 2008 at 6:17 am | Posted in Adding capacity, Airlines, airports, Aviation industry, BAA, Competition Commission, Heathrow, Heathrow airport, Heathrow expansion, Market Investigation, Office of Fair Trading, PR, Sipson, Spokesman | Leave a comment

For my American friends, a quick skim of the Wikipedia entry on Britain’s notorious Highland Clearances may help you appreciate the title of today’s excellent article in the Independent, and my longer-than-usual comments follow the story:

The Heathrow clearances: village to be bulldozed for new runway
By Jonathan Brown
Saturday, 23 February 2008

Sipson’s bucolic charm has faded a little since its oldest resident Jack Clark, 96, drove a steam engine to Covent Garden each morning laden with fruit and vegetables that thrived in the rich soils of the surrounding Middlesex fields.

Today the heady scents of the market gardens have given way to the smell of jet fuel; the blacksmith’s hammer silenced by the march of time and the roar every 90 seconds of the jet engines from Sipson’s mighty neighbour, Heathrow airport.

Yet this small population, hemmed in by a matrix of runways and motorways, considers itself to be still very much a village in the old style. There are three pubs, a shop and a popular local school but above all a thriving community spirit. It is a spirit which, should Heathrow’s owners BAA get their way this year, will be buried irrevocably under hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete.

On Monday, residents, whose 700 homes will be bulldozed to make way for a third runway and a sixth terminal building at Heathrow should it get the go ahead, will head 14 miles down the M4 into central London where they will link up with thousands of other people who fear their lives are about to be desperately blighted by the plans.

The rally in Westminster, timed to coincide with the end of a consultation period next Wednesday, will be addressed by opponents of expansion. These include opposition parties, neighbouring councils, local MPs and candidates in the election for Mayor of London as well as environmentalists and thousands of homeowners.

It is estimated that some two million people across a vast swath of the South-east will be affected should the Government decide, as expected, that new infrastructure is needed for the airport to keep pace with international rivals.

But campaigners say noise pollution will become unbearable from Greenwich to Windsor with 50 per cent more planes using Heathrow by 2030 – 700,000 each year or the equivalent of a Gatwick airport added to the already vast west London complex.

It is a far cry from the days when Mr Clark worked for the local farmer Wild and Robbins. In the 1920s the village was famous for its vineries. There was a village green and thatched cottages. On Sundays local children would swim in the tributaries of the river Colne, now little more than a trickle.

“It was a real village in them days – it was something else, a nice quiet place,” recalled Mr Clark from the front room of the tiny cottage where he and his late wife raised four sons. “The only vehicle we would ever see would be the odd motorbike going through. They say if Churchill had ever known what was going on he would never have allowed them to build the airport here in the first place.”

Saleh Ahmed, the manager of the local Indian restaurant Achari, is concerned about the future. The airport and nearby business centres provide a steady stream of customers. “It is going to happen,” he said. “I have been to some of the meetings and they say they will compensate us but it is not in our hands. The decision has already been rubber-stamped.”

Peter and Gaynor Rumble, both aged 76, have been living in their cottage for more than 40 years. “When we moved here the fourth terminal was being built,” said Mr Rumble. “They said that if they got that there will be more need for expansion. They’ve just got the fifth terminal, now they want a sixth and a new runway. Where does that leave us? We are in limbo.”

Locals say they are being bullied into accepting BAA’s offer of a transferable bond which values their home in relation to 2002 prices. If they don’t sign up and their homes are compulsorily purchased, they will receive only the basic level of compensation. But three-bedroom homes in Sipson sell for £100,000 less than similar properties in nearby areas less blighted by the planes.

BAA insists that its offer is generous and the airport is vital to the area’s economy. A spokesman said: “Heathrow is full and vulnerable to foreign competition. The Government has been very clear that the development can go ahead within the limits of noise, air-quality and public-transport requirements. This is growth within environmental limits.”

But back in Sipson, Debbie Power, landlady of the 16th-century King William IV pub, was less convinced. “Money can buy you a new house or a new business but it can’t buy you a new community or new friends,” she said. “This is a good village.”

As far as BAA’s stance, I should like to point out:

Any business spokesmen or negotiator has to insist his company’s “offer is generous” (nobody can prove that wrong, as it depends on your values, which are subjective) so that’s a non-starter.

BAA are welcome to tell us “the airport is vital to the area’s economy“. Currently it is. Nobody I know is suggesting Heathrow be disbanded. That does not, however, mean that expanding Heathrow airport will improve the area’s economy. It also depends on how one define’s ‘the area’. The South-East of England has an over-heated economy with pockets of deprivation. Even the Times article on property in Windsor concluded that Windsor and Eton have two DOWNSIDES: we live in ‘a ghetto of privilege’ and endure flightpath noise. We must be mad!

The Dust Bowl showed that there are physical limits that can be reached: narrow-minded and extensive human activity over a wide area combined with unpredictable natural forces can result in harm. There is no reason to believe that everything can expand forever, without serious consequences.

Business can tell us that “Heathrow is full“. It is. That is, in part, a direct consequence of the airlines marketing cheap flights, without any regard for their own climate change and other environmental responsibilities. When challenged on this point, the aviation industry experts blame passengers for wanting to fly!

In any case, we do have other London airports—Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, City—and I have seen no valid case for expansion at Heathrow alone. The entire beyond-Greater-London transport infrastructure really needs to be studied and improved upon before Ruth Kelly and Gordon Brown are applauded for their blind expansion of Heathrow based on aspirational suppositions.

(I won’t bore you with my stories of departing from Heathrow and returning to Gatwick when Heathrow is fog-bound, only to get the coach back to LHR to collect my car. A direct high-speed train service between airports remains a pipe dream. AirTrack from Staines is known locally as ‘The Ghost Train’, as plans have been delayed so the project has failed to materialise. The new rail service was intended to be ready for opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow, next month!)

Expansion simply makes Heathrow an even greater bottleneck when weather conditions prevent air traffic using it. This expansion is not going to provide much-needed spare capacity, for recovery from delays caused by our not-so-popular foggy days. No. Spare slots are highly prized and come at a premium. Airlines (especially American carriers) are lining up for the chance to get slots at LHR to serve the lucrative transatlantic market. Spare capacity will simply be used up as soon as it is made available. ‘Predict and provide‘ is the outmoded and annoying tag line that sums up the mentality of those who commissioned proposals for ‘Adding capacity at Heathrow airport‘.

Business can tell us “Heathrow is … vulnerable to foreign competition“. Of course it is. Expanding Heathrow airport does not change that fact of international business. We live in a globalised world. Where on Earth does BAA, itself owned by a Spanish consortium headed by Grupo Ferrovial SA, think we are going to face competition from? Oh, yes. I remember Lord Soley of Future Heathrow telling us Heathrow would lose out to the airports at Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt and Munich. Guess what? It deserves to if it is disorganised and poorly managed. Bigger isn’t always better. I don’t know Schipol, but the other three are superb examples of what can be achieved in the way of sleek, pleasant airport experiences these days.

A little known fact (for those who don’t travel there often) is that Heathrow airport is already undergoing a transformation. A massive renovation (remodeling) project means the entire airport will be replaced in the next few years. Currently the place is a giant building site. The New Heathrow is happening and people think it is Heathrow expansion. No. The two are separate projects. BAA tell you more about their plans here:

Heathrow. A new airport for London.

Heathrow.  A new airport for London.  Construction at Terminal 1 on 12 February 2008

Ferrovial already owns three airports around London (Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted) as well as several regional airports in Britain. BAA airports are currently the subject of an inquiry by the Competition Commission. Keep an eye on the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission next month (March 2008):

OFT refers BAA airports to the Competition Commission 30 March 2007 (Press release by the Office of Fair Trading)

Competition Commission (website to watch)

BAA Airports Market Investigation—Issues Statement 9 August 2007 (PDF Press release by the Competition Commission)

No wonder Grupo Ferrovial’s Corporate Legal Chief has jumped ship (jumped plane?) to work for DLA Piper …

BAA are very clever hiding behind the Government when they provide this quote “The Government has been very clear that the development can go ahead within the limits of noise, air-quality and public-transport requirements.” First of all, BAA are correct to remind us that the Government has been clear about conditions for development. The current Labour Government and our next Conservative Government are, naturally, covering themselves politically by appearing not to provide carte blanche for expansion of Heathrow airport. They are trying to give the impression that they have a considered and reasonable view on the environmental aspects of this topic. Nothing—nothing!—could be further from the truth. The only way I can describe the approach taken by this sham of a consultation is that it has sought to manipulate research to support declared objectives then market the results. In the words of Terry Gould, of RBWM Council “Proposals are in all out pursuit to achieve objectives.”

For me, responding to this consultation is like rebuffing energy industry tactics to deny global warming all over again. Sick ‘n’ slick.

Finally, BAA provide a quote that cannot be denied: “This is growth within environmental limits.” You have to agree with that. It epitomises every question on the Response Form we have been given in the consultation on ‘Adding capacity at Heathrow airport‘. The problem is, the limits chosen are not the right ones!

Before I leave it at that, I would like to stress a couple of points about the treatment of residents and employees that have become clear to me in Public Meetings and conversations with neighbours:

  • There is no compensation for Sipson residents
  • They are being offered bonds index-linked to 2002 prices (when Concorde was still flying)
  • Airport employers, so I am told, include notes about Heathrow expansion along with pay advice slips
  • People are scared to speak against their employers
  • Unions need to get on board to support people who object to Heathrow expansion and recognise each worker is also a human being and employment is not the only aspect of life worth fighting for

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