Law: Terminal turbulence

The inquiry into expanding Heathrow is over, but a decision is years away.
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The Independent Culture
In the softly lit lobby of the Renaissance Hotel at Heathrow Airport, a security guard writes on a white board: "This is Day 525". The room behind the board used to contain the hotel swimming-pool, but since 16 May 1995 it has housed the longest planning inquiry in UK history - that into the plans of the British Airports Authority (BAA) to build a fifth terminal at Britain's largest airport.

Yesterday the inquiry, launched by the last Conservative government, drew to an end. It has lasted nearly half as long again as the previous record-breaker, the inquiry into Sizewell B (which lasted 340 days). BAA - like its opponents - has been obliged to set up office in hotel rooms overlooking a runway.

"I enjoyed it for the first few years," says BAA's principal opponent, Hillingdon Borough Council's in-house planning lawyer, Craig Pile, apparently without irony. "But we stopped staring at the planes a long time ago."

Over the last four years, more than 800 witnesses have given evidence to the inspector, Roy Vandermeer QC. Together with the lawyers, they contributed to a grand total of 35 million words on the court transcript. And 25,000 people have sent in their written opinions. The most telling moments, says Pile, have been evening sessions for the public.

"The sincerity that comes across is really striking. People have genuinely been woken up at four in the morning; their lives have been made very, very bad. People around here," he insists, "are predominantly against expanding the airport, whatever BAA may say."

But aviation is growing. Last year, 1.5 billion people around the world flew on scheduled flights, 50 per cent more than in 1987 - andnumbers are expected to rise by 5 per cent a year for the next 20 years. Heathrow accounted for 60 million passengers through its existing four terminals, compared with 51 million in 1994. With a fifth terminal, say the opponents, the number is likely to top 100 million.

For the site of the proposed new terminal, BAA has selected a former sewage farm. But Friends of the Earth argues that this is an important habitat for wintering birds, and a vital buffer zone for nearby communities. FoE also claims that peripheral changes, such as the expansion of road networks, will have a substantial adverse impact.

Heathrow Airport was built on high-quality farmland during the Second World War using wartime regulations to avoid public examinations of the plan. Since 1947, the four terminals, two runways, car-parking, freight and service areas have expanded to cover nearly 3,000 acres. There is enough Tarmac, according to Friends of the Earth, to build 200 miles of three-lane motorway. The noise severely disturbs some half a million people; and the planes - coming in over London - disturb many more. The fifth terminal, if it goes ahead, would itself constitute the third largest airport in Europe.

Before the 1997 general election, John Prescott condemned the plan: "There will ultimately be more flights over the most congested airway in Europe," he said, "at great cost to the environment and to congestion around the airport."

The inspector who passed the plans for the fourth terminal, Ian Glidewell QC, affirmed that it should be the last. The firmly pro-business Tory minister Norman (now Lord) Tebbit once told the House of Commons: "the proposed fifth terminal should not go ahead." And before it was privatised in 1986, even BAA opposed a fifth terminal. But times have changed. Now BAA wants the extra capacity and has invested vast resources in this inquiry. The objectors can only afford a small fraction of the same expenditure. According to Private Eye, the government regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, allowed BAA to raise its landing charges by pounds 60m in order to meet the expense of the inquiry - effectively offering a public subsidy. No such funding was offered to the objectors, despite requests.

Initially, 13 local authorities in West London and the Thames Valley formally opposed BAA. But all of them, except for Hillingdon, - the statutory planning authority for Heathrow - pulled out a year ago, because of a lack of funds. Other objectors, such as Friends of the Earth, pulled out for similar reasons, with some returning last month to make final submissions.

So for the last year, just two lawyers have represented the substantial opposition to BAA. One is Mr Pile, the other a junior barrister - David Smith. By comparison, BAA has had two silks, Lord Silsoe QC and Guy Roots QC, and two junior barristers, plus a team from the City solicitors Cameron McKenna, housed in a suite of 25 hotel rooms. Hillingdon has just two rooms. With an annual budget of around pounds 450,000, Mr Pile and Mr Smith have been sorely constrained. They have had to request several adjournments.

"There is so much to do," says Mr Pile. "We will be preparing evidence on one topic, such as noise pollution, and at the same time, David is [in the tribunal] covering another topic altogether. And then there is all the correspondence."

In such circumstances, it is hard to see that Hillingdon can win. But even if that happens, many observers suspect that the Government may allow the fifth terminal to go ahead.

But BAA will have to wait at least until 2002 before starting any building work, which is expected to cost around pounds 1.8bn and last nine years. It may take longer, because the inspector is expected to take two years to write his report. And by that time, the Government, facing a general election, may choose to postpone its decision.