Green veteran leads campaign to build Terminal Five

Development/ battle over Heathrow
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DES WILSON maintains that he is an environmentalist. The veteran of countless environmental campaigns, including the successful battle against lead in petrol, may be the public face of the bid to build Britain's largest airport terminal in an already crowded and polluted area of southern England, but he says his principles have not changed.

Mr Wilson was appointed BAA's head of public relations and corporate affairs last year to give a green edge to the company's efforts to get permission to build Terminal Five at Heathrow.

The scale of what Mr Wilson is trying to sell to the public is breathtaking. The T5 scheme is no little shed for a few air travellers but a massive development that incorporates as much retail space as the town centre of nearby Staines, an 800-bed hotel, a large office block and parking for 13,000 cars. Oh yes, and space for 30 million passengers, in addition the present annual total of 50 million, to use the airport each year by 2015.

It is not surprising then that the public enquiry into the proposal, which opens on Tuesday at the Ramada Hotel near the airport, is set to continue until early 1997.

Mr Wilson, 54, makes no apology for joining what many of his ex-colleagues at Friends of the Earth would call the "other side". He simply does not see it like that: "I remain an environmentalist. But I do not agree with the Dark Greens who say that you should try to prevent growth in air travel. You can't do that."

Indeed, this new Mr Wilson is the people's pal, working to ensure they can all afford the cheap flights to Majorca: "The only way to reduce the numbers flying is through higher fares. If we don't expand terminal capacity at Heathrow, fares will go up and people won't be able to afford to go abroad."

Opponents of the scheme say that BAA's reason for spending some £1,200m on the new terminal, designed by Sir Richard Rogers, is not to cater for air passengers but to create a new out-of-town shopping centre.

Mr Wilson replies that the retail space is an essential part of the concept: "We are providing this airport free of charge to the British taxpayer. We have to pay for it somehow, and making money through retail seems an excellent way of doing so."

Mr Wilson, who earns more than £100,000, has already begun to repay some of his wages by cleverly disassociating BAA from supporting the unpopular scheme to widen the M25 to 14 lanes, which at one stage was closely associated with the T5 plan. He says, "My colleagues were all ready to give evidence at the enquiry supporting the widening. I asked them whether we needed it, they told me we didn't." The Government, too, quickly scrapped the idea.

After a briefing last week, Mr Wilson proudly handed out a paper outlining his environmental achievements since taking up the job, which include setting up feasibility studies into local public transport schemes and strengthening the mission statement to include the sentence "recognise the concerns of local communities, set challenging environmental targets and audit our performance against them".

The crux of BAA's case is that T5 will only result in a marginal increase in flights, from around 410,000 movements per year to 460,000, some of which would occur anyway. The extra people will be accommodated because planes are getting bigger and it has ruled out a third runway at Heathrow. The company adds that 16,500 jobs will be safeguarded or created by T5. British Airways claimed last week that not having T5 would cost £2bn per year to the British economy.

Such arguments are refuted by Peter Brown, who is a consultant to a consortium of local authorities opposed to T5: "Our consultants suggest there would not be any impact on the national economy of not having T5. And while there would be some local jobs created, we are worried that our local economy just can't cope and that the demand on housing and social services will cause extra problems."

Nor do opponents accept that the numbers will be accommodated by larger planes. Mr Brown said: "T5 will lead to pressure for a new runway and then T6 and T7. When T4 was given planning permission in 1983, the inspector said that would be the last terminal."

He points out that each flight now only has 126 people on average, much less than BAA's forecast when T4 was being proposed of 177 by now. To fill T5, BAA needs around 180 per plane.

The outcome of the enquiry is uncertain. BAA plans to send 500,000 "Dear Neighbour" letters to local people on Monday outlining its case for the terminal. While BAA publishes Mori polls showing a narrow majority of those decided in favour of the scheme, 90 per cent of those who have written in to the enquiry have been opposed.

With the inspector unlikely to report before the spring of 1997, it will be up to the new government to decide whether to give the scheme the go- ahead. All nearby councils, Labour, Tory and LibDem - except for Labour- controlled Slough - are resolutely opposed.

The only certain winner is the Ramada on Bath Road near the airport, where the enquiry is being held. BAA, which by the end of the hearings will have spent £100m on preparations for the scheme and the enquiry, has taken up dozens of rooms and many other organisations have taken up space.

The inspector, Roy Vandermeer QC, a leading planning lawyer and a deputy high court judge, insisted on a location with natural light and the only suitable room was the swimming pool, which has been covered with boards. Mr Vandermeer will be sitting at the deep end. But he knew that already.