Protesters warned of rain threat to tunnel safety

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The Independent Online
Two protesters holding out under the site of Manchester Airport's proposed second runway have been warned that their tunnel may be dangerously weak because of heavy rainfall.

Bailiffs working to evict "Wendy" and "Irish Alan" from a tunnel at the Zion Tree camp have decided not to send in their own tunnelling experts to bring out the couple because the structure is too dangerous.

The man in charge of the eviction, Randal Hibbert, the under-sheriff of Cheshire, expressed concern yesterday that the tunnel had been built during three dry months which had been followed by weeks of heavy rain.

Campaign co-ordinators and the environmental group Friends of the Earth insisted that the tunnel was safe, but Inspector Rick Hollingshead of Cheshire police said he shared the bailiff's concerns.

"The problem is that the tunnel was built during three months of drought but it is actually being lived in when conditions are extremely wet," he said. "The water can seep down and affect the integrity of the tunnel. I understand it was not very strong to start with."

He said Mr Hibbert had shouted his concerns down the shaft to the protesters but they had refused to come out.

Jeff Gazzard, a local resident and campaign co-ordinator, rejected claims that the tunnel had been weakened. "Tunnelling underground is a risky proposition for anyone but these people made the tunnel and have been living in it for three months," he said. "If anything has weakened it, it is the police banging on the door and the shorings with sledgehammers."

The protesters' campaign was given a boost yesterday with the arrival of Terry Waite, the former church envoy and Beirut hostage, who has been a long-time supporter of their cause. He was told he would be allowed on to the site to discuss protesters' demands for independent legal observers to be present during the eviction, but he declined to enter when two local residents accompanying him were turned away.

After an unsuccessful meeting with Mr Hibbert, the former envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury emerged saying: "The under-sheriff is denying local people their democratic rights.

"In 20 years' time it would be the people who wreaked such environment damage who would be thrown in jail - not the protesters. There are fundamental issues of principle at stake here. The legal process was loaded in favour of the developers from the start; this is indicative of Britain's ailing planning system.

"The decision to allow Manchester Airport plc to build this runway shows that this country lacks a co-ordinated transport policy. I have personally written to John Prescott [Secretary of State for the Environment and Transport] to ask him to address this: we need him to intervene to halt the destruction of the Bollin Valley before it's too late."

Two more protesters were evicted from treehouses yesterday but Friends of the Earth believe at least another 100 people are holding out up trees and in more than 10 tunnels.