Dogfight over Manchester

Coming down? Planned second runway threatens listed houses

IT IS a bitter mid-morning in the north Cheshire countryside. The loudest noise in the picturesque Bollin valley is the barking of a farm dog. After 20 minutes, a rumble disturbs the peace: it turns into a roar, then a whoosh as an SAS Boeing, climbing hard, appears above a nearby group of trees. We are a few hundred yards from the end of Manchester Airport's runway. Derek Squirrell, mayor of Knutsford and chairman of the Manchester Airport Joint Action Group (Majag), has come here to show the countryside that will be destroyed if, as the airportwants, a second runway is built across the valley. It is a bonus for him that he can also demonstrate that the present runway is not, apparently, bursting at the seams.

As the Government announced that no major new runways would be built at Heathrow or Gatwick, battlefronts were still opening up over Manchester's £170m runway two.

At a public hall in Wythenshawe, on the urban side of the airport, Ken Smith is presiding over one of the longest and costliest public inquiries ever held in the North of England. It started in June and is due to wind up in a month. It has cost the airport at least £30m and Majag £250,000 - though the protesters had plenty of unpaid help.

Mr Smith, the planning inspector, will spend the summer going through his hand-written notes, as well as the thousand-plus submissions, and will make his recommendation to the transport and environment ministers in the autumn. In a year, we should know whether the runway is to go ahead.

Depending on whom you believe, this is a war by wealthy Nimbies attempting to preserve their house prices at the expense of jobs and the future of Manchester, or it is about rational citizens trying to counter the power-crazed ambitions of a hard-Left council. It has been marked by ferocity on both sides.

Opposition billboards are nailed up all over north Cheshire, the Manchester stockbroker belt. Majag has impressive support. For publicity, Terry Waite, whose father used to a be a local bobby. For legal firepower, Robert Webb, whose mother's house overlooks the Bollin. For technical expertise, Jim Shepherd, former director of engineering at the airport. "The second runway is driven by Manchester's delusions of grandeur," he says. The airport is the biggest still in local authority ownership and, Majag says, the council is using it as a vehicle for its plan to dominate the North-west.

Independent opposition comes from Michael Gibson of the Feudal Society, who lives in a gipsy caravan. His evidence was submitted partly in verse, written in copperplate. "O silver 'planes in bluest skies / Folk flying off to Paradise / How vain and sillyand unwise / The grass there is no greener!"

Mr Gibson's tin-whistle tune, which he wanted to play to the inquiry, was disallowed by the inspector on the grounds that he could not pass it on to ministers.

The runway's supporters preferred the weapon of disdain. Graham Stringer, leader of Manchester Council, the airport's majority shareholder, dismisses Majag as "a small number of relatively well-heeled people who are good at publicity. The biggest damage comes from the signs saying "No to Runway Two".

Geoff Muirhead, the airport's chief executive, picks up Majag's claim that it is David against Goliath. "Does it mean you're right because you're David?" he asks.

But the resources the airport is pouring into the campaign suggest that it takes its opponents very seriously indeed. As well as a battery of lawyers and barristers, it has been lobbying with the sort of vigour normally used only by protesters. It has handed out "Yes 2 R2" sticks of rock at party conferences, as well as bumper stickers and badges by the thousand.

Airport workers have been encouraged to write letters of support. So has the public: at Woodford airshow, more than 1,000 people wrote letters.

"It's the only large public inquiry in history that has had more people writing in support than against," Mr Stringer says. Almost half the 10,000 letters are pre-printed; this, the managers concede, will lessen their impact.

There have been accusations that the airport has resorted to darker tactics. In October, the direct labour organisation of Stockport council, which opposes the runway, was removed from the airport's standing list of contractors. The council's leader, Fred Riley, said: "If it is an attempt to blackmail us over the second runway then it's failing, because opposition to the plan is firm."

The airport retorts that Stockport's DLO was removed from the list because it should not have been on it in the first place. Majag also has a letter from a company saying that it has been warned off working for the opposition. The airport's response: "Rubbish."

Amid these fireworks, Mr Smith will have to come to his own conclusion. There are areas where the airport clearly has the stronger hand - most notably job creation. It says 20,000 more jobs will be created, directly and indirectly, by a second runway. Majag disputes the figure but cannot deny that a bigger airport will employ more people - which is why a Mori poll showed substantial support for the runway.

Majag's strong suit is the environment. Four listed houses will be pulled down, and ancient woodland and ponds will be destroyed. A bigger airport will create more congestion on the already busy suburban motorways and, the protesters claim, the people ofnorth Cheshire will be assaulted by more noise.

The airport disputes the noise argument - it says that as aircraft get quieter, the total "noise footprint" will remain steady. But it does not deny that the new runway will be an unlovely thing. Callum Thomas, head of the environment at the airport, hasa sign saying "I love aircraft noise" on his door. In truth, he is the nearest Majag has to an ally in the airport. He has spent many months working out how animals will be able to work their way round the runway without disturbance, and how the flora and fauna can be attracted to the tunnel through which the river will be routed (there will, it seems, be bats in the Bollin).

Cheshire County Council opposed the runway - until the airport came up with more than 100 promises that amounted to a vast "planning gain" operation. Like a retail chain wanting to build a store on a piece of parkland, the airport has promised a range ofcompensatory benefits elsewhere. For every pond destroyed, for example, it is proposing to build two somewhere else.

The really knotty point, and the one that Mr Smith will have to ponder most profoundly, is whether the airport needs another runway to cope with the expansion of scheduled flights.

Both sides agree that as it operates now, it is reaching capacity. The management says that 68 slots for the peak hours were requested for this year, when the capacity is 42.

If more aircraft cannot take off and land, airlines will start to turn away and that, Mr Stringer says, would be disastrous. He has grand ambitions for Manchester. "There is clearly a competition going on within Europe to decide the 12 to 16 cities thatwill became major decision-making centres," he says. "London, Milan and Paris are already established - the dozen cities that go with them will depend on how good their communications are. Manchester's main competitors are Lisbon, Copenhagen and Amsterdam - not Birmingham or Glasgow."

The consequences of failing to get the runway, he says, are dire. "We would go backwards. We are disadvantaged because of our peripherality to the European market."

All this is scaremongering, Majag says. The bottleneck that needs to be lifted is that on business flights - and this can be removed simply by moving charter flights from the busiest hours; either to other slots during the day or, better still, to Liverpool.

The experts have been attacking each other hammer and tongs on whether either option is possible or desirable. There is no reason charter airlines cannot be charged more during peak times to make them use less-congested slots, Mr Shepherd says. Louise Congden, the airport's head of government and industrial strategy, disagrees: "Under EU law, they have an absolute right to retain their slots."

Liverpool Airport at Speke, belonging to British Aerospace, has only 400,000 passengers a year now and wants to build up charter traffic. The easiest way, it believes, is to persuade airlines to switch from Manchester.

But Ms Congden retorts that 16 of the 17 carriers currently using Manchester say they would not move to Liverpool, and they cannot be forced to. Mr Muirhead says it would also damage his operation if the charter flights left. "When we had a charter downturn, scheduled was strong, and vice versa," he says. "Trying to split the business will just destroy it."

Brickbats are also flying over whether Speke is less convenient. "It's the same distance from the M6," say Liverpool's managers.

"Half its catchment area is water, and another quarter is hills," Mr Stringer says. "Unless fish and sheep start buying aeroplane tickets, it's not got much chance."

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