Germaine Greer and Jamie Oliver square up over airport expansion
Sunday 07 December 2003
It could turn out to be one of the strangest conservation duels ever fought on English soil - a bitter tug-of-Tarmac between two of Britain's most instantly recognisable figures.
Germaine Greer has pitted herself against a powerful protest lobby led by Jamie Oliver over the future of thousands of acres of unspoilt Essex countryside under threat from plans to build an extra runway at Stansted airport. In one corner, the blokeish young multi-millionaire celebrity chef and lately champion of the aesthetics of beautiful villages and landscape. In the other, the chief cheerleader of the feminist cause and lately champion of the aesthetics of beautiful young men. Jamie and Germaine, your flight may be about to land.
Next week the Department for Transport is expected to reveal its preferred site, or sites, for a dramatic expansion in airport capacity in the UK - the climax of 18 months of furious debate that has seen an A-to-Z of Britain's conservation groups line up against the hard-nosed strategists and money men of the global airline and airport industry, the Government and the Treasury.
At first, the Government assessed dozens of airports and green-field sites for expansion, but it is now believed that just two locations are under consideration: Stansted and Heathrow. At the former, 3,000 acres of countryside could be eaten up by development, with 196 planes taking off or landing every hour on up to three new runways. Dozens of historic buildings would vanish or be harmed by noise and pollution. An enlarged Stansted would be one of the biggest airports in the world.
Anti-expansion groups have burgeoned at many of the key sites "optioned" for possible development, but at Stansted the row over the threat to local villages, landscape and wildlife has taken on a life of its own, not least through the tapping of a rich seam of famous figures - including Terry Waite and the legendary libel lawyer Peter Carter-Ruck - who live near the airport and who are appalled at the prospect of it becoming "the new Heathrow". All, that is, apart from one.
Germaine Greer, who lives in an ancient farmhouse on the outer fringe of the area affected by an increase in jet noise should expansion go ahead, is all for growth. In a series of broadsides the Melbourne-born scourge of intellectual sloppiness rounded on local opponents to expansion. "The future of the South-east is suburbia," she has said. "The people who live in rural peace and blessedness in north Essex are not sturdy peasantry but professionals and business people who want to deny the commercial reality from which they make their living. Airports are the cities of the future."
She argues that what relative rural peace there once may have been in her corner of Essex has been lost to light aircraft and heavy traffic.
Carol Barbone, of Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE), a campaign group that last week harried Whitehall and the head office of the British Airports Authority with a 70-car motorcade, said: "Just about everyone apart from Germaine is against the plans."
Alan Dean, leader of Uttlesford district council and campaigner against expansion, visited Professor Greer at her home, hoping to help her see the error of her ways. He was instead granted one of the most severe doorstep lashings of his political life. "She took a robust position," he said. "She was all for another Heathrow."
But over at Clavering, a short drive from Professor Greer's house, swords are being sharpened in readiness for the next skirmish against the expanders and their supporters. Clavering is home to Jamie Oliver and his family. His mother, Sally, is a key anti-expansion campaigner. Both Mr Oliver and his wife, Jules, were born and grew up in the area, and now live in a £900,000 16th-century manor.
Last week, Mr Oliver told The Independent on Sunday he was disappointed by Professor Greer's stance on the airport. "I'm not sure how involved she is in the community," he said, "but everyone I know living around here is worried.
"I remember going on a march about Stansted expansion when I was about eight years old. It seems to me that governments just use time to get what they want in the end. I am against the destruction of swathes of countryside and the increase in noise and pollution."
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