The slow saga of an airport, a hotel and a very patient QC

After three years, 18,000 submissions and pounds 60m, the Heathrow Term inal Five inquiry rumbles on, writes Tim Hulse
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DEMOCRACY. Want to see how it works? Want to witness its cogs and wheels in glorious, oiled motion? Then come with me to the low-rise limbo land of Heathrow Airport's hotel country. Step beneath the bright red awning of the Ramada Hotel and pass through its gleaming plate-glass doors. Enter the neo-colonial-style foyer, with its parlour palms and weeping figs, take a left past the lifts, and allow the soothing Muzak to pipe you on your way until you reach the Barbarella International hairdressing salon. Then turn sharp right and take a quick left before the gift shop, at the entrance marked "Ramada Suite".

Tread softly now, for you have entered the domain of Roy Vandermeer, QC, the man charged with overseeing the public inquiry concerning plans for a fifth terminal at Heathrow. Mr Vandermeer, a grey-haired, distinguished- looking gentleman in a smart suit and a red tie, presides at the far end of this long room behind a cloth-covered table. Ever at his elbow is his assistant, Mike Brundell, who is ready to step in at a moment's notice should Mr Vandermeer be run over by a bus or die of old age before the inquiry reaches its conclusion.

And the chances of the latter increase daily, despite the fact that Mr Vandermeer is still in his mid-sixties and, to all outward appearances, in rude health. The inquiry began on 16 May 1995, and it was estimated at the time that it would take a year, or perhaps a maximum of 18 months. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. On 17 October last year, on its 340th day, Terminal Five became the longest running inquiry in UK history. Yesterday marked its third anniversary and it is now scheduled to end in November this year. With any luck. But don't hold your breath.

That's the problem with democracy. You give everyone an opportunity to have their say and then they go and decide to take you up on it. Mr Vandermeer has now heard evidence from nearly 350 witnesses, and more than 350 members of the public have voiced their opinions at special sessions. He has received more than 4,000 inquiry documents and more than 18,000 written submissions from individuals and organisations, and has read them all. He has heard local people argue that their lives will be ruined by the terminal, and the British Airports Authority insist that Heathrow's survival as one of the most important air gateways of the world depends on it.

Democracy doesn't come cheap. So far the estimated cost of the inquiry exceeds pounds 60m. Of this, pounds 45m has been stumped up by the British Airports Authority and British Airways, the companies behind the planning application, but the rest has been borne by central and local government. On Thursday, the day I visited the inquiry, a consortium of local authorities and pressure groups who are opposed to the development because of increased noise and traffic and fears about safety, announced that it had been forced to pull out because, after spending pounds 4m, it had run out of money.

But the inquiry grinds on regardless, and is currently in the process of hearing evidence regarding public safety. On Thursday it was the turn of Alan Nafzger to take the stand. Mr Nafzger is an administrative civil servant in the Airports Policy Division of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and his evidence concerned the Government's Public Safety Zone policy. In a monotone voice he read from a prepared statement peppered with phrases such as "tolerability criteria" and "cost- benefit analysis". His words fell leadenly to the floor of the room, which once echoed with the joyous shrieks of cavorting swimmers, for this was formerly the site of the hotel's pool, before it was covered with concrete blocks and carpeted over for the purposes of the inquiry. Mr Vandermeer, as chance would have it, sits at the deep end.

In the centre of the room is a perspex case containing a scale model of the proposed terminal, complete with little aeroplanes. Designed by Richard Rogers, Terminal Five will be built on the site of an old sludge works on the western side of the airport and will cost pounds 1.8bn if permission is finally granted. The model is directly in the field of view of all the participants in the inquiry, who sit at tables arranged in a square around it. Down one side are the serried ranks of lawyers representing the BAA and the DETR, who on Thursday formed the majority of the 20-odd people present. Down the other side, and across the bottom, sit representatives of various groups opposed to the scheme: people such as Geoff Kirk, chairman of the West Area Residents' Association, Leonard Lean, vice-chairman of the Ealing Aircraft Noise Action Group, and Gordon Glass, a former resident of Ealing who now lives in Bath and represents nobody other than himself. After Mr Nafzger had completed his evidence, they took it in turns to cross-examine him, and, judging by the ponderous, halting style of their questioning, it was easy to imagine the inquiry lasting well into the next millennium.

Beyond the square of tables, roughly 100 red velour chairs are reserved for the use of members of the public. On Thursday, there were two people there, and this was considered a good turnout. Lynda Lee, 54, drops in two or three times a week. She told me she was disappointed that so few members of the public were taking an active interest. "But a lot of it is very complicated and I don't think the average person could understand it," she said.

The inquiry exists very much in its own little world. Upstairs on the first floor, 38 rooms of the hotel are permanently turned over to its use as offices for the various participants. The Ramada came up with the best deal when the DETR was looking for a venue in the area, and now it is reaping the benefit. The hotel charges a special reduced rate for the rooms, but even so, the inquiry has proved a nice little earner over the past three years. "I would be lying if I said it wasn't profitable," said Heinz Volland, the hotel's genial general manager.

When the inquiry finally reaches its end, the Ramada Suite will return to being a swimming pool once more. Mr Vandermeer will go away to write his report, which will take about a year, and then the Government will spend about six months considering it. Should it give the go-ahead, Terminal Five will be open for business some time around the end of 2004 or the beginning of 2005. The planning application was lodged in 1993. "Whatever happens, at least we'll know it's been investigated properly," said Lynda Lee. And how.