by Chris Longhurst
In this guest blog Isleworth resident and local journalist CHRIS LONGHURST gives his views on yet another upcoming consultation on airport expansion and reflects on just how many similar exercises have been carried out in his professional lifetime which saw him working as Heathrow reporter – and later editor – for both the Uxbridge Gazette and the Hounslow Chronicle newspapers:
“Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once claimed ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ –only he said it in French of course – and certainly for us seasoned airport watchers the knowledge that this April will see yet another Heathrow expansion consultation foisted on the world means we could most definitely be said to be suffering an advanced case of ‘already seen’; to use a translation of another French phrase*.
The reasons why we are being asked, for what feels like the millionth time, to give our opinions on adding extra capacity to the country’s busiest airport are well documented so there is no need to go over them again here. In truth, the details of the ‘why’ matter far less to most beleaguered locals than the question of ‘when’ as in ‘when will we finally break free of this interminable time loop?’
I first joined the Uxbridge Gazette in 2001 and can still remember the first Heathrow-related story I ever wrote it; it concerned the ongoing row between the Government and campaigners over – what the fifth terminal was simply known as at the time – T5. It would be a whole year before construction would eventually begin; having been in planning Hell since as far back as 1982!
Undoubtedly one of the biggest stories of my fledging career was covering the demonstration by environmental activists who had managed to infiltrate the site; climbing the massive cranes to unfurl protest banners, which landed them all with court summonses when they were eventually talked down after more than a week. I was there the day all eight appeared at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court and was one of the first to report the previously unknown fact that amongst their number was none other than one Daniel Hooper; better known to the world as Swampy!
From that point on, barely a month went by without a Heathrow story demanding to be included in the pages of the Gazette. Whether it was reporting the utterly predictable news that the promise to end expansion at T5 and not seek a third runway following its completion had been broken, revealing details of leaked plans for even more terminals in future, or patiently trying to explain the difference between government white and green papers, I and my colleagues doggedly kept the good citizens of Hillingdon – and beyond – informed of as many new developments as often as we could.
Throughout that time, an ever-present source of information existed in the form of HACAN and its committed team of supporters and experts. Their ethos regarding Heathrow has always been ‘Better not Bigger’ and over the years the activities of HACAN members and those of its fellow anti-expansion campaigners has sought to drive home that message time and time again.
We were there with them when they marched around the villages of Longford, Sipson, Harmondsworth and Harlington; we were there when they held a series of Flash Mob-style demonstrations in red T-shirts – including on the disastrous opening day of Terminal 5 when all the bags went missing – and we were there when they formed a giant ‘NO’ using their own bodies to send a message which could be read from the air (I’m standing in the bottom right-hand part of the ‘O’ in that one!)
That last one is particularly interesting, in that back then we were unafraid to openly admit to being anti-expansion ourselves. Simply because we knew it was how the majority of our readers felt too. Even when we were reporting how much the government and airport authority were offering in compensation to affected communities, we knew how much the history and sense of community meant to local people, and how strongly they felt about being asked to even consider moving away and leaving their beloved homes to be bulldozed.
Ten years ago I strengthened my anti-expansion credentials by moving to a flat directly under the flight path in Isleworth, where for the first time I was able to personally experience the noise, air, and traffic problems caused by having the airport in such close proximity which previously I had only been writing about. So while I have long since moved on from my professional interest in the expansion debate, I now get to continue attending exhibition events and filling in those seemingly endless consultation documents as an interested local resident.
How many have I filled in during that time? Does it matter? The fact is that no matter how many times we do it, they just keep asking! It’s incredibly frustrating, but if my journalism career has taught me anything, it’s that major infrastructure projects not only don’t get sorted out overnight, even when you think the argument has been won, or lost – and you’ve heard the last on the issue for ever – even then it turns out they are not sorted!
So when April rolls around and we all find ourselves once again receiving a small rainforest’s worth of information leaflets and consultation flyers through the post all inviting us to air our opinions on Heathrow’s plans for the third runway, feel free to sigh and say to yourself ‘here we go again’ but, equally, don’t fall into the trap of deciding not to bother taking part this time. Spirit sapping and horrendously repetitive though these processes might be, I’m afraid they are a necessary evil in the battle to ensure our voices are not drowned out over this incredibly important issue.
And, let’s be honest – remote though the possibility may be – aren’t we all just a little curious to see if our current (at the time of writing) Prime Minister will lie down in front of those bulldozers after all?!