Back Heathrow’s methods exposed

The method’s of the controversial pro-expansion group Back Heathrow have been exposed in the Sunday Times (30/11/14)

“HEATHROW came under fire from senior politicians and environmentalists this weekend after bankrolling a community campaign group that claims to represent the “silent majority” who want a third runway at the airport.

Hundreds of thousands of homes in London have received a series of glossy newsletters and surveys from Back Heathrow, a group that says it is “building a community of support for Heathrow airport”.

Designed like a tabloid newspaper, the leaflets include stark warnings that “114,000 jobs are at risk if Heathrow shuts down”. Three of the four newsletters delivered during the past year fail to disclose that Back Heathrow is funded by the airport.

Critics claim the group is a version of an aggressive lobbying tactic called “astroturfing” — when a movement is portrayed as a grassroots initiative but is actually run on behalf of corporate interests.

“This is straight out of Big Tobacco and anti-climatechange-type strategies where you simply scaremonger through an ‘astroturf’ group that you set up and fund at arm’s length,” said Jeff Gazzard, a spokesman for the pressure group Aviation Environment Federation.

Back Heathrow denied it was a front for the airport and Heathrow said it had “always been transparent” about the fact it helped fund the group.

The most recent newsletter, which was delivered to up to 750,000 homes, claimed more than 50,000 residents were supporting Back Heathrow’s campaign.

“People from all ages and walks of life are joining Back Heathrow and this silent majority is beginning to have its voice heard,” it said.

Back Heathrow’s campaign co-ordinator, Rob Gray, is a former director of the Aviation Foundation, a lobbying group established by the industry.

He set up Back Heathrow as a limited company in July 2013 with Nathan Fletcher, a senior PR officer at the airport. Fletcher, who is now Heathrow’s head of news, resigned as a director in April.

Michael Appleton, Back Heathrow’s communications manager, is a former communications officer at the airport.

Gray refused to reveal how much funding Back Heathrow had received from the airport, saying only that it was more than £100,000. He said the group had also received a donation from Heathrow Hub, a group that has submitted a rival plan to expand the airport, as well as smaller donations from residents and businesses.

Matthew Gorman, the airport’s director of sustainability and environment, was questioned about Heathrow’s support for the group during a heated meeting last Thursday of around 150 residents in Putney, southwest London.

Gorman insisted the airport had been “very open” that it had “provided some funding to set Back Heathrow up and we continue to provide some funding”.

Asked by The Sunday Times after the meeting how much funding the airport had provided, he replied: “I don’t know exactly.” He then refused to answer further questions.

Justine Greening, the Conservative cabinet minister and MP for Putney, accused Back Heathrow of “making out that they are some sort of residents’ group”.

Ravi Govindia, the Tory leader of Wandsworth council, said Heathrow was not being “open” about its relationship with the group, and Ray Puddifoot, the Hillingdon council leader, who has been criticised in Back Heathrow’s literature, said his local authority regarded the airport with “disdain because of the tactics that they are using”.

Back Heathrow states on its website that it was “initially launched” with money from the airport but does not admit it continues to receive donations.

One of its leaflets, delivered in September last year, discloses it is “supported and financed” by Heathrow.

Gray said: “The uncomfortable truth for those opposed to Heathrow expansion is that the levels of support we have attracted from residents reflect what almost all independent polls show — that there is majority support in local areas for growth at the UK’s hub airport.”

A Heathrow spokeswoman said the airport “continued efforts to give a voice to those who had previously not been heard in the debate on the airport’s future”.