First it was tunnels, now it's runways

Decca Aitkenhead reports on a new protest camp at Manchester Airport
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The Independent Online
As Swampy, Muppet and Animal were tunnelling deep into rural Devon a week ago, to a frenzy of media fascination, a small group of protesters several hundred miles north were quietly taking to the trees.

And when Devon's celebrity moles surfaced seven days later, their last stand against the building of the A30 trunk road effectively over, the question "Where next?" was being answered in ancient oaks nestled in a curve of Cheshire meadowland.

Here's next: Manchester Airport. The proposed building of its second runway, announced on 15 January after a long planning battle, is likely to become the next focus of the environmental direct action that anti- roads protesters have made their own, to such spectacular effect.

There is a camp, already, in the grounds of the planned second runway, and 400 yards from the end of the present one. It is as yet a modest affair, with tree houses and a small circle of tents, and the debate about the runway has, until now, been largely confined to local voices in the north- west.

The giant publicity the Fairmile protest achieved is likely to change all that. Muppet has announced he'll be on his way and others may follow.

The airport, eight miles south of the city, near Wilmslow, is only the 48th largest in the world, but the sixth most profitable. It is owned by Manchester's 10 local authorities, and supporters of the pounds 170m second runway argue that it will give a vital boost to the region's businesses. Some 50,000 new jobs will be created, the airport claims.

That it will destroy seven hectares of ancient woodland, disturb three National Trust estates and bring more noise and pollution to a rural area of scenic towns and villages were all deemed insubstantial enough problems to outweigh the "significant economic benefit".

A mitigation package of environmental promises, no night flights, tree planting and the like persuaded the inquiry to grant permission. Unless the local borough council of Macclesfield can find grounds to seek a judicial appeal in the coming weeks, the runway will be built.

Huddled around a fire, above the banks of the River Bollin, two dozen or so campaigners are digging in for a long battle.

All the customary trappings of direct action are in place - treehouses, mobile phones, banners - and there are seasoned anti-road veterans here, such as Colin, 40, twice imprisoned for previous action, who has "come out of retirement" to be here.

But many others are new to the game: several only heard about the action on the news last Sunday and polite introductions are going on across the fire. "Hi, we haven't been introduced - I'm Alice."

Airport security make a daily appearance, asking them to leave, but local police are being decidedly light-handed.

The camp has a slightly shy, beginners feel about it.

"I was sitting at home in Wigan when I saw it on the news," grins Ian, 26. "I've never done anything like this before - I used to work for British Nuclear Fuels. So I'm a virgin, I suppose."

Andy, 22, was a chef in Preston until last week, "and then I saw the news and thought, 'I'm just sick of stuff like this going on'." Others are students from Leeds and Manchester.

Nobody is quite sure how the protest will develop. The prospect of an army of quasi-celebrity veterans arriving from the south provokes mixed feelings. The support and attendant profile will be welcome, but the resident protesters are anxious to stress that theirs is a locally inspired campaign.

Partly, this is to counter the idea that all these protests are the work of one rent-a-mob gang of militant activists, and partly, you suspect, out of a slight sense of protectiveness.

"The press have been going Newbury, but there was the M65 and M66 protest going on up here before that," says one.

What distinguishes this from other actions is the issue at stake: aviation. With the Government's road-building budget slashed, and 85 per cent of Daily Mirror readers coming out in support of Swampy in a telephone poll held last week, there is a sense that the public is, if not convinced by, at least familiar with and sympathetic to the anti-road arguments.

The Manchester protest is against the environmental damage caused by air traffic emissions, an issue already mobilising action in Holland. Japan, Germany and elsewhere, but until now largely overlooked in Britain.

"No one's made the link with aviation yet. But all the benefits from cutting down on CFCs [chloroflurocarbons] and road traffic will be wiped out unless we tackle air traffic pollution," says Jimmy, another protester.

"A jumbo's emissions are far more damaging to the ozone than anything else, and much nearer to the ozone layer."

"We want to take the road protests forward and turn attention to aeroplanes. This is what we've been knocking on people's doors near here, telling them about."

What Cheshire folk will make of their new neighbours remains to be seen. Initial support has apparently been overwhelming. "They are giving us more food and stuff than we can carry back," marvels Ian. And indeed local opposition to the runway remains fierce and widespread.

Jeff Gazzard, a local resident and leading opponent, describes the anti- runway coalition as "small-town fuckwit Tories, the green-welly brigade, Guardian reader advertising types, village preservation sorts and the 'this is going to knock 30 per cent off the value of my house' lot" - which pretty much covers the whole of Cheshire society.

The protesters are hoping to convert this opposition into a wider public campaign about aviation and the environment.

With the planning process for Heathrow's fifth terminal now well into its second year, successful action here could have a serious impact on that decision, and on the future of all environmental debates.

Meanwhile, Jimmy and Ian, Andy and the others are as uncertain as anyone about where action will lead. Every few minutes planes come thundering down through the sky, practically skimming the tree houses. They won't be getting a great deal of peace.