The airport inquiry coming in to land has produced 21m words and 19 bab ies

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THE PLANNING inquiry into a proposed fifth terminal for Heathrow Airport ends next week, having smashed all records: over the past four years its various participants have produced 21 million words, 80,000 separate documents, pounds 80m in costs and, incidentally, 19 children.

Many of those participants are already breathing audible sighs of relief in expectation of going home from the inquiry next Wednesday afternoon - and not coming back. Even the lawyers, some of whom have become exceedingly rich from the four years of deliberation, seem glad that it is all over; they have started telephoning their travel agents to make plans for long, faraway holidays.

Lord Silsoe QC, a leading lawyer for the British Airports Authority, admits: "It feels strange. It's difficult to imagine what life will be like without it." A veteran of the lengthy Sizewell B nuclear power-station planning inquiry, he talks of the mixture of "relief and anti-climax" when it is all over.

When the Terminal Five inquiry started at the Ramada Heathrow hotel it was expected to last no more than 16 months. Four years on, they are still there, marooned on the boarded-over swimming pool which serves as a conference room in the soulless hinterland of Heathrow.

Heinz Volland, general manager at the Renaissance (the hotel has since been renamed) will be sad to see everybody go. They have, he says with gentle understatement, been "good customers". Over the years, the Terminal Gang have become the hotel's most familiar and profitable guests.

The inquiry has turned into a mini-industry all of its own. Some of the BAA team even sleep on site; they get to go home only at weekends. They are delighted that the end is finally nigh. "When we leave this building it will be like being released from prison," says one of the BAA staff, who none the less admits to worries that she and others have become "institutionalised" by this long incarceration. "It'll be difficult to accustom ourselves to ordinary domestic lives." They will be able to spend more time with families that have changed and grown; the inquiry chairman, High Court judge Roy Vandermeer, has become a grandfather, as has his deputy.

The hotel takes itself seriously as a home from home, organising summer and Christmas parties. "Such a spread, you wouldn't believe it," says Norman Hawkins, inquiry commissionaire. One of the diehard protesters admits: "It's been quite pleasurable - a social four years as well as the hard work and aggression."

The two sides may smile and chat together, over the turkey and trimmings, but the there is no love lost between supporters and opponents of the Terminal Five scheme.

Along the soft-carpeted hotel corridors are rows of offices converted from hotel bedrooms. Twenty six of them, in fact, filled with files and computers.

The grand offices belong to BAA. A humbler bedroom is the opponents' bunker. The name on the door "Resistance Headquarters" is written in Gothic script, as if in an old-fashioned war movie. Behind the door ("engage the enemy more closely") is a cosy but indignant land of tea and chocolate biscuits. The tweed-jacketed Leonard Lean, a retired British Rail manager, has been coming almost daily since the inquiry began - 444 days, and counting. "My wife describes it as like going back to work. I leave home at ten to nine, and get back at six or quarter past."

Not surprisingly, many believe that the whole inquiry has been a gross waste of money. Peter Hall, professor of planning at University College London, argues: "There's got to be a better way. It's farcical. You can't take four years to reach a decision - even on the most important subject. There has to be some kind of time limit."

The inquiry itself will not even necessarily lead anywhere, despite spending such huge sums. The most likely outcome is that the investigation, after spending four years hearing all the evidence and then another two thinking about it, will come up with the answer that was first thought of.

Government ministers have been publicly scornful of the inquiry, describing it as a "waste of time".

Even if it recommends against the new terminal, the Government could simply ignore its recommendations and go ahead anyway. Critical MPs are already bracing themselves for such a possibility, warning of "one hell of a bloody row" if that were to happen.

Allegedly, this has been democracy in action. Sometimes it has looked more like democracy inaction. Anybody can make submissions to the inquiry - which are duly listened to, noted, typed up, photocopied.

More than 800 people have given evidence - often several times. Leonard Lean alone has made 190 submissions to the inquiry. Hardly surprising, perhaps, that the inquiry has ended up within spitting distance of the new millennium.

In genteel voices the submissions - mostly incomprehensible to the lay visitor - continue without end. The words waft across the carpeted room with its empty tables, crisp white tablecloths and untouched jugs of iced water.

"If I turn to CA33 and day 504 ... concerned with the application of service standards ... reasonably achievable ATMs in the segregated mode." And thus it continues, all day, day after day.

Lord Silsoe argues that a long inquiry like this is better than the alternative - not having an inquiry. "People can have their say - not with mass demonstrations, like in France or Germany."

But Professor Hall is sceptical, arguing that the system in Europe is "less cumbersome" and that large inquiries in this country are in any case frequently accompanied by protest demonstrations.

On the substantial arguments both sides are as far apart as ever. BAA, wearing its best diplomatic hat, says that it is delighted the inquiry was held, to allow all grievances to be fully aired "and listened to".

They swear that they understand how strongly people feel. More to the point, they like to insist that many of the objections are based on misunderstanding the situation. They emphasise that the construction of Terminal Five does not mean building another runway, merely utilising better the runways that already exist.

For "better", read more. Rita Pears, chair of one of the local residents' groups, lives directly under a flight path. She fears that if Terminal Five is built the health and noise problems will be even worse than they already are. Protesters claim that their sleep is disturbed - especially by the "evil" Concorde, and that the BAA's claim that there are few night flights is dishonest, since planes arriving at 5am or even earlier do not count as night flights. Ms Pears, who brought her nine-month-old grandson Stephen to the inquiry this week, says he suffers from asthma as a result of the pollution. She claims that she is not against the airport as such. But, she says, the noise and pollution are already bad. "We couldn't bear it getting any worse." BAA is going on the offensive to mark the end of the inquiry next week. Yesterday it published the results of a Gallup poll of residents showing that "a clear majority" (56 per cent) would support the terminal if no new runway is built, air-noise levels do not get worse than in 1994, and the night- flight quota does not increase.

"Only" one in three would continue to oppose Terminal Five if those concessions were made.

Sir John Egan, chief executive of the authority, said that there was "no alternative" to Terminal Five and insisted that the company was confident of success - "because the case is overwhelming".

The terminal, designed by Richard Rogers, is to be built within the boundaries of the existing airport, on a sludge farm. Sir John Egan claims: "This will be an attractive building in the best possible place."

BAA acknowledges that traffic problems in the area are likely to get (even) worse. But it claims that pounds 600m being spent on rail, bus and coach links would soften the impact of those problems.

Leonard Lean and his colleagues are, however, having none of it. He warns that he and other opponents will not give up, even if BAA wins this round. "We'll go through it with a toothcomb - and we'll take it to a judicial review."

In short, the old story: Having already garnered pounds 8m between them, at least the lawyers can rejoice. 525-day marathon

THE PUBLIC inquiry into the planned fifth terminal at Heathrow began on 16 May 1995. When it ends on Wednesday it will complete a 525- day saga which has generated an astonishing array of statistics:

Twenty one million words have been spoken.

The inquiry has used up 100,000 of daily transcripts, all recorded by stenographers.

Twelve million sheets of paper have been printed as part of the inquiry process.

If all the documents were stacked up, they would reach 150ft - as high as nine double-decker buses on top of each other.

More than 800 witnesses representing 50 major parties have presented evidence in person. This has included 20 MPs and MEPs.

A total of 33 barristers have been employed at some stage during the inquiry.

The inspectors have undertaken 90 site visits and held 17 public sessions which were attended by more than 1,600 people. Around 400 members of the public gave evidence at these sessions.

The two inspectors, assisted by eight other planning inspectors, listened to more than 3,100 hours of legal argument and evidence.

They had to examine 37 separate planning applications, including two submissions to divert rivers.

The inquiry received 5,400 official bundles of documents.

A total of 22,500 people made written representations, including postcards, of which 95 per cent opposed Terminal Five.

Longest

Hearings

With the exception of Terminal 5, the longest ever public inquiry in this country was into the Sizewell B nuclear power station in Suffolk. It spanned more than six years and involved 340 sitting days of hearings.

The inquiry into the pounds 3bn plant was headed by Sir Frank Layfield who reported in 1987. The inquiry into the power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset lasted for 182 sitting days. The 100-day nuclear public inquiry into Windscale, which became known as the Thorp plant at Sellafield, also made history as the longest. It was run by Mr Justice Parker who reported in March 1978.

The Stansted airport public inquiry lasted for 258 full sitting days. The independent inspector, Graham Eyre QC, recommended planning consent in December 1984.

The inquiry into the proposed pounds 700m Birmingham Northern Relief Road, the country's first private toll motorway, opened in April 1994 and closed in October the following year. There were 191 sitting days.

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