The starting date of the public inquiry has just been fixed (16 May next year), and the lucky owner of a hotel near Heathrow is in for a windfall soon: a conference room is being sought to accommodate a judicial process to which 3,800 people have already submitted objections, more than half of whom want to give evidence in person. It will take more than 18 months to hear them, at a cost in excess of pounds 10m.
The stakes are enormous. By the time the Government may be in a position to give the final go-ahead, in mid-1997, BAA plc, the immensely profitable privatised company which owns and operates the airport, will have spent more than pounds 150m just on preparatory design work and in beginning the task of clearing the site, presently occupied by the Perry Oaks sewage and sludge farm.
Terminal Five itself, designed by Richard Rogers, costing pounds 1bn and catering for 30 million passengers a year with two stations (for the Tube and the new Heathrow Express), a new network of roads and a hotel, will fulfil a dream for the principal national carrier: it will be the British Airways terminal, allowing the airline at last to consolidate all its flights into one base for its sole use.
Both BAA and British Airways sum up the argument for extending Heathrow by claiming that otherwise the airport and the airline will be forced into decline. A BA spokesman said: 'Any business that isn't growing is a dead business.' From both companies there is much talk about the economy and the national interest.
That cuts no ice with thousands of people living in a wide arc to the west of London, beneath the flightpath of arriving and departing planes. They are the ones to whom the crucial BAA statistic, that the new terminal will mean an increase from 400,000 to 450,000 flights a year, is insupportable. Many are comfortably off and articulate; they are busily organising their opposition, as individuals and via a host of rapidly growing pressure groups.
'Any extra flights would make life intolerable,' says John Boulton, of the main anti-noise group, HACAN (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise). 'Because of the prevailing winds, people in west London get the planes landing over them 75 per cent of the time. Already the effect on our lives is dreadful. And more flights means more risk of an accident like the Amsterdam air disaster.'
Thirty local authorities, including some of the England's richest counties, such as Surrey, and richest boroughs, such as Richmond upon Thames, have banded together in a remarkable formal coalition to oppose Terminal Five. In the funds they can draw upon and the legal power they can jointly mobilise, they are - for once - the equals of BAA and British Airways.
It means that the battle will largely be about public relations. Enter the figure of Des Wilson, former leading light of the Liberal Democrats (Paddy Ashdown's campaign manager in the 1992 general election), former director of Shelter, the housing charity, and longtime environmental campaigner - he was once chairman of Friends of the Earth. Enter - but not on the side you might think.
Aware that the environmental argument would be prominent, BAA pulled off a coup earlier this year by hiring Mr Wilson as its director of public and corporate affairs - its chief public persona - at a salary of more than pounds 100,000. Mr Wilson says: 'The environmentalists should rejoice that an environmentalist is working for BAA. I remain an environmentalist. You might change what you are when you are 30 but not when you are 53.'
He says that Terminal Five is the most environmentally friendly way of meeting the growth in air traffic: 'Trying to stop people flying is just not on.'
Opponents, however, say that it is: that already the Government has accepted that it cannot cater for the projected increase in road traffic by building more roads. Mr Boulton of HACAN says: 'The same argument can be applied to air travel. In the end, growth is not sustainable.'
Before it was privatised, say the opponents, BAA supported expansion at Stansted Airport in Essex. 'At the time, as BAA was publicly owned, it opposed Terminal Five and supported Stansted expansion,' says Stephen Webb, senior planning officer with Surrey County Council. 'Now, quite understandably, BAA is only interested in profit for its shareholders, and expansion of Heathrow will undoubtedly mean a boost for its short-term profits.'
BAA responds by saying that growth in air travel will be so big that Heathrow's expansion as well as Stansted's will be needed. The numbers game will be the most crucial aspect of the whole row. Broadly using official figures, BAA says that, by 2016, 165 million people a year will use London's four airports - Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted (all owned by BAA), and Luton - compared with 69 million in 1993.
Such figures are widely challenged. Mr Boulton points out: 'All previous estimates of air traffic growth have proved hugely optimistic, such as the Roskill inquiry (into London's airport needs) which overestimated by 100 per cent.'
Richard Graham, a transport analyst with long experience of airport inquiries, reckons that aviation is a mature industry and that the heady growth rates of the Seventies and Eighties will shrink: 'The forecasts include holiday travel, and clearly there is a limit to growth since the numbers able to afford to take holidays by air is finite. Business travel growth, too, will slow down.'
BAA's opponents question the company's promise not to build a third runway and not to increase night flights. BAA says it will adapt to the extra capacity through increases in the average number of passengers per flight, which has risen from 110 to 120 since 1982. Currently there are around 400,000 flights and BAA says that, with Terminal Five, there will be 450,000, requiring each one to carry 178 passengers to make a total of 80 million.
'That is just fanciful,' Mr Boulton says. 'Aircraft are getting a bit bigger but basically you are talking about such a massive increase that it is unrealistic.'
Another issue, the planned widening of the part of the M25 nearest the airport into a 14- lane motorway, is also crucial, as the Terminal Five planning application assumes that the extra lanes will be built - although the public inquiry into their construction has been postponed, and the Labour Party has promised to shelve the plan if it wins the next election. However, Des Wilson says: 'We have told the Department of Transport that we do not need the 14-lane motorway. The existing capacity is enough.'
BAA is going for broke over the fifth terminal because it knows that this is its last chance for major expansion. For the company, the result of the inquiry is virtually a fait accompli. Its opponents, however, maintain that expanding Heathrow runs counter to the Government's stated planning objective of supporting development east, rather than west, of London, that the local economy will overheat, the environment will be badly damaged, and the figures do not add up anyway.
The debate over Terminal Five is set to be the landmark planning issue of the 1990s, longer than any inquiry since those into nuclear power station extensions in the Eighties, encapsulating all the arguments about unrestrained economic growth versus sustainable development into one small part of the Home Counties.
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