It’s probably the most common question we get. ‘Why don’t you move, if the noise is bothering you so much?’ It is sometimes said aggressively; at other times just quizzically. It can be followed by the comment: ‘After all, you knew the airport was there before you moved in.’
When I respond to these questions by email, I usually start by admitting that some people could move but choose to stay before adding that many, many others have moved because of the noise. I regularly get emails: I’ve given up the battle; I’m escaping to Brighton; I can take it no more, we’re off. People often ask me where in London is free of the planes. It can be tricky giving advice when they don’t tell you their price range! I tried to send a woman to Uxbridge who really fancied Chiswick. And nearly bankrupted another by suggesting Marylebone. She settled for Barking.
The oddest request was from a couple who had become so disturbed by the noise that they wanted reassurance that Banchory, near Balmoral in rural Aberdeenshire, was not under any flight paths. And the saddest was the mother who had struggled for years with the noise in order to keep her children at schools they enjoyed only to move back to her home town of Southend, just a year before that airport put in an application for significant expansion.
That last example illustrates the second point I make in my email responses to those who suggest we all could move. For most people it is just not that simple. Many have no choice for reason of income, employment, disability, age or other personal circumstances.
There are so many cases like the woman from Southend where one member of the family is driven to distraction by the noise but tries to put up with it so as not disrupt the lives of the rest of the family. Far from being simple, the option of moving may well be the hardest decision a family ever has to take.
There is also some truth in the other point made: that people knew what they were in for when they moved in. Most people who have moved into a property under a Heathrow flight path in recent years will know the score though many still say they had no conception of the way the aircraft would invade their lives until they actually had to live with it.
Although on the surface it appears pretty straightforward – you can hardly miss an airport or a flight path – dig just under that surface and a more complex picture emerges.
Some people, particularly those in rented accommodation, have little real choice about the area they move into, especially if they need to be within an affordable travelling distance of work. We have a member who had been out of work for some years. His only option when a job came up in Hounslow was to move his family to the area.
Then there are many people who admit that they knew full well they were moving under a flight path when they bought their property 30 or 40 years ago but, in all good faith, believed the promises made by government and the airport operator that terminal 4 and then terminal 5 would be the last major developments at the airport. They did not move to an area that had a plane coming over every 90 seconds.
And finally, possibly more than a quarter of a million people unexpectedly found themselves under the Heathrow flight paths when in 1996 the suggested point for planes joining their final approach to the airport was extended by up to 3 miles. There was no consultation and no compensation. Indeed, for years many in the industry and government never admitted that any change had taken place.
There was no way that these people, living 20 miles and more from the airport, could ever have expected to be living with a constant stream of sound. Many fled but that was not an option for the majority of people in the densely-populated, low-income estates of Stockwell, Brixton and Peckham. As one elderly West Indian woman said to me, “Darling, at my age, it’s either here or Jamaica. And here is now home. It’s where all my family is.”