For dozens of communities in south-east England, a purgatory of anxiety and dread is about to end. For a handful of them, it is about to get very much worse.
Within the next few days, Sir Howard Davies, the financial mandarin appointed by the Coalition Government to break the political deadlock over airport expansion in the south-east, will publish his shortlist of preferred solutions. When he invited submissions to his commission, 58 turned up. Some were borderline bonkers, such as the idea for a MagLev (magnetic levitation) train between Heathrow and Gatwick – visions that no one as hard-headed as Davies is likely to dignify by shortlisting.
Heathrow, however, is almost certain to succeed in bringing its Third Runway back from the dead and on to the shortlist. An insider at the busiest international airport in the world, which already dwarfs its European rivals, says it would be “astonishing” if Davies spurned its proposals to expand – the more so because it has offered three alternatives, each with its own pluses and minuses. The Airport that Ate West London, whose thunderous pre-dawn chorus shatters the sleep of Londoners from Hampstead to Harrow and from Brockley to Bracknell, and which has expanded inexorably in defiance of all those who have been arguing for 40 years that it is in precisely the wrong place, is back in business.
Stanwell Moor was in an awkward spot long before Heathrow thought of building a third runway over it. The King George VI Reservoir borders it to the south, the M25 flanks it to the west; the airport’s existing runways are just yards away to the north-east. The noise as planes take off and land is flabbergastingly loud. As Kathleen Croft, head of the village’s residents’ association, who has lived here for 44 years, says, “When an Airbus A380 takes off, it’s frightening.”
Some outsiders say this village could be flattened tomorrow with no regrets: most of the houses are cookie-cutter interwar semis of the type familiar to the whole world thanks to the Harry Potter films. But like all the old Middlesex villages eaten into by the airport, this one, too, has its relic of an earlier age – in this case, a fine old red-brick water mill at the top of Mrs Croft’s road, standing astride the River Colne. It featured in Genevieve, the 1953 hit comedy about a vintage car race.
Croft runs a boarding cattery practically on the airport fence, called Paws. “We moved here because my husband had a transport business connected to Heathrow,” she says. “We came to look at the house and he said, what do you think? I said, it’s OK. He said, good, I’ve bought it. When Heathrow published its proposals to flatten the village we had a meeting and 300 people turned up. The main question they were asking was ‘How much?’ – how much would the airport pay to compulsorily purchase them.”
If many of the residents are willing to take the money and run, it’s hardly surprising. Heathrow makes great play of the fact that today’s planes are quieter than in the past, that take-off and landing angles are steeper, that noisier planes are charged more to use the airport. But these claims are trumped by the simple fact that there are far more of them. “We’ve had the noise here for a long time,” says Croft, “and whatever Heathrow says, it’s much worse than before. I would like anyone who thinks otherwise to be here at 4.20 in the morning when there are 16 incoming flights, one after another. It’s hard to sleep through that. All day long you’ll get six or seven aircraft stacked up over the runway waiting to come in. We never had that in the past.”
Of the three options for expansion submitted by Heathrow, the south-west runway over Stanwell Moor would be the most expensive and technically complicated, requiring a reservoir to be concreted over and a stretch of the M25 put into a tunnel. On the plus side, it would take the airport’s new air traffic further from the critical areas of west London where protests about the noise have been the most politically explosive.
But it may never happen. And that is one of the curses of Heathrow for the people living nearby: they don’t know whether they, or the airport, are coming or going. The villages of Sipson and Harmondsworth to the north have been in limbo for more than a decade, during which time the last Labour government backed the airport’s plan to eliminate them with an east-west runway to the north of the two existing ones. Then the Coalition, under huge pressure from MPs with constituencies under the flight path, cancelled the plan. But now we may be only days away from that plan’s return, in a different though no less devastating guise.
During those years of limbo, the big resistance movement against expansion which Sipson had spawned was largely killed off when the airport paid well over the odds for homes in the way. The result was an exodus of one-third of its population; now Heathrow rents out those properties on short-term lets, meaning the community will struggle to rediscover its identity.
Reminders of the rebellion remain, however, the bravest being a market garden created in the village by green squatters on land that was being illegally used to break up old cars. The squat, known as Grow Heathrow, recently lost an appeal against eviction and could be forcibly closed at any time, but meanwhile the residents and volunteers keep up the work. “If they built the Third Runway,” says Sam Sorrell, a young graduate from Ealing, “it would produce as much CO2 per year as the whole of Kenya. The key point of this is to keep Sipson alive in the face of this climate-change factory Heathrow wants to build.”
Heathrow claims to feel as unhappy about the travails of Sipson and other villages as the communities directly affected. Inside Compass Centre, the airport’s administrative HQ, efficiently insulated from the runway racket, Nigel Milton, the airport’s energetic director of policy and political relations, explains why.
“What’s happened in Sipson is the worst,” he says. “They’ve lived through 10 years of this uncertainty, which has been absolutely horrendous: we’re building, then we’re not building, then we might… In my role, I try to be as empathetic as I can, and I think if I knew I was going to have to move in six months’ time and they were going to pay me more than the value of my house – then I might not like it, but at least I’d know and I could get on with it.
“But if they might or they might not, it’s much worse: then I might not build the extension because I might lose my house; my kids might want to go to such-and-such a school, but if we’re moving in a year’s time, do we really want to make friends with those people or start getting involved with the community? I’ve got an opportunity to take a job over there but I can’t sell the house because no one’s going to buy it… It’s that, going on for 10 years, which is why I have great sympathy for them, and why we as a company want to avoid what has happened at Sipson.
“And the nightmare possibility for all the communities mentioned in the 58 proposals is that they could share the fate of Sipson . If there is umming and ahing, uncertainty, splits between political parties, and the Government says let’s wait till the next election and see what happens then, we’ll have an exact repeat of what happened in Sipson, but it will also be in Harlington and Stanwell Moor and Wraysbury and other villages. That’s why we are putting pressure on Howard Davies and saying, keep to the time-table, and when you’ve taken a decision, stick to it, don’t dilly-dally.”
The Sipson blight has been felt acutely a few hundred yards to the west, in the hamlet of Harmondsworth, one of the amazing pockets of antiquity wrapped in the airport’s capacious skirts and of which all but a tiny number of those flying in and out of Heathrow are unaware.
“Heremundes worp” – or “Heremund’s enclosure” – is found in the Domesday Book; the first appearance of the parish was in 780AD, when King Offa of Mercia granted the land to his servant Aeldred. The church of St Mary has a beautiful and unusual wrought-iron belfry on top of its tower; the entrance arch inside the porch, the oldest part, is magnificently Norman.
Visible from the churchyard, with its graves stretching back many centuries including that of Richard Cox, creator of Cox’s Orange Pippin in the village’s orchards, is the Great Barn of Harmondsworth: the oldest and biggest timber-framed building in Britain, more than 190ft long, erected in the 15th century by Winchester College to serve its farm here: “the ancestor”, as the late Ian Nairn wrote, “of all the hundreds of tile and tarred-weatherboard barns that survive around London”. “The cathedral of Middlesex”, John Betjeman called it. After many years of neglect, it was purchased by English k Heritage in 2011, and their effusive description – it “ranks alongside the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey for its exceptional architectural and historic interest” – leads one to wonder why it took them so long.
The vicar of Harmondsworth says that the stunning contrast between the sleek modern airport and this fragment of ancient England was one of the things that appealed to him and his wife when he was offered the job. With the Third Runway hanging over the village for so many years, he adds, “I never believed we would still be here now.”
The Venerable Amatu Onundu Christian-Iwuagwu, an Igbo from Biafra in Nigeria, is what the Church of England calls a “non-stipendial” vicar: most of the week he works as an engineer on oil and gas fields – “It’s a continuous ministerial education,” he enthuses – then comes back to Harmondsworth to bury, to marry, to baptise and to lead Communion. “We lost one-third of our congregation due to the uncertainty over the runway,” he says. “We used to have 45 on a regular Sunday; it’s come down to 25 or 30, half of whom come from outside the village.”
He blames the vibrations from the planes for the large crack that has appeared in the south wall of the church. But unlike some other parsons in the area, he has not taken up arms against the runway. “A lot of people here feel it’s a sacrifice we have to make for the nation,” he says. “Others are against it. My job is not to take a position, it is to say what is the will of God,” he says.
Heathrow’s two new proposals for runways to the north would bring the planes closer than ever before, and the north-western version would require the village to be flattened. Heathrow says it is “working to see whether [the church and the barn]… could be preserved in their current location”. It’s not a promise that impresses the vicar: with the runway noise right next door, he says, the life of the church would become impossible.
Christian-Iwuagwu admits that he was shocked, having learnt in Nigeria about the reverence in which ancient buildings are held in Britain, to find how rudely heritage is treated around Heathrow. That paradox goes back to the original sin of the airport’s construction: Harold Balfour, the Tory Under-Secretary for Air during the Second World War, persuaded the War Cabinet that an RAF base was needed on Hounslow Heath, fully aware, as he admitted in his memoirs, that to declare that he planned to convert it, post-war, into a civilian airport would have killed the scheme stone-dead.
The now-extinct village of Heath Row was a tempting location because of its geology: as an old BAA publication put it, 25 million years ago, “A flat layer of gravel was deposited 14 miles west of what is now Trafalgar Square, and it was the flatness and the excellent drainage characteristics of the gravel that made Heathrow the perfect site for an airport.”
As recently as 1996 – when BAA was still loudly denying it had any plans for a third runway – the airport’s tone was still unapologetically triumphalist. Sir John Egan, then the chief executive, brayed, “Nowhere is the march of progress more apparent than at Heathrow, where the original wind-blown village of 1946 is such a contrast to today’s thriving metropolis – the world’s number-one international airport.”
Chastened by years of attacks from those whose lives are made hideous by living under the flight path, Nigel Milton and his colleagues would be unlikely today to describe Heathrow as “the perfect site”. But the airport has got this far by offering generations of our leaders the line of least resistance, and today it is arguable that it has become that dreaded thing: an institution that is too big to fail. A four-runway airport on Grain Island, over on the Thames Estuary, the site promoted by Foster & Partners, would remove the Heathrow headache at a stroke, but it would require rare qualities of political leadership and determination to make it happen. That’s why my colleague Simon Calder, The Independent’s acclaimed travel guru, puts its chances of success at 500-1.
Although politicians of all three main parties whose constituents are affected by noise have channelled their fury – John McDonnell (Lab) for Hayes and Harlington at one point grabbing the mace as he insisted the House debate the issue – London Mayor Boris Johnson is the most eloquent about the full dimensions of the folly that Heathrow represents. In 2008, in one of his earliest interventions in the debate, he wrote, “It makes little sense to entrench a colossal planning error of the 1940s by expanding Heathrow in a way that will have all sorts of damaging impacts on the capital and the lives of its citizens… Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Londoners stand to be affected in a way that the builders of Heathrow never imagined.”
In a booklet describing its “new approach” to expanding the airport, Heathrow finds less strident language than John Egan’s to urge its case. “Britain is a small island in a large ocean,” it points out. “For the last 350 years we’ve had the world’s largest port or airport on our shores… Now more than ever Britain needs to be connected.”
Few people would dispute that. But Boris Johnson’s simple, plaintive question retains its force: “Why are we the only major country to direct aviation traffic straight over our principal conurbation?”