Barry Wilton, an activist involved in Transition Heathrow, spoke to Solidarity about the campaign to oppose airport expansion in the communities around Heathrow.
The issue of the expansion of Heathrow Airport, which was pushed by the Labour government in 2006-7 but was defeated, after a long campaign, in 2010, has been completely revived. The Davies Commission into airport expansion in the south east is considering a number of options, several of which are Heathrow-focused. A leak that was published in the Independent showed that the non-Heathrow options are not being seriously considered, so expansion has become a real possibility again.
However, it’s far from a done deal. Politically, if one of the three main parties comes out firmly against expansion before the next election, that could seriously scupper things. There are powerful elements in both the Tories and Labour who favour expansion, but neither party has yet come out decisively in favour of it.
There is widespread opposition in local communities to expansion. Several local councils have held referenda on the issue, all of which have returned strong votes against expansion. John McDonnell is calling community meetings all over the effected area. A meeting on 16 January mobilised 150 people, well beyond the usual suspect. John Randall, a local Tory MP, also opposes expansion, and a group of councils across London have come out against it too, so there’s a lot more official political opposition than there was last time.
The campaign on the ground is beginning to revive, and there is a discussion going on about wider climate politics. The wider climate movement, which is reviving around opposition to the government’s “dash for gas” energy policies, isn’t particularly switched on to anti-airport expansion campaign at the moment, but I think people will come round to it soon.
When we set up Transition Heathrow, we were quietly confident that we were going to win the campaign against expansion. Our aim was to embed a culture of organising and activism within the local community. The main lasting outcome of that was Grow Heathrow, an activist social space we set up on an abandoned market garden in Sipson, near the airport. Grow Heathrow will celebrate is fourth birthday on Saturday 1 February 2014. The intention was to establish a bulwark that could organise against future expansion threats.
Grow Heathrow has been under constant threat of eviction. That threat remains live, and our main resistance to it now is simply to get bodies on the ground and fill the space with as much human activity as possible, to make it difficult to evict us.
Until recently, a big aspect of our eviction resistance has been a legal challenge, which we began in 2010. We were able to get a barrister to represent us pro bono. They were interested in challenging the existing law on evictions and setting a legal precedent which would apply to any occupiers facing eviction — tenants, squatters, homeowners in mortgage arrears, and others.
The challenge relied on an argument Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to a “private and family life”, must be taken into balanced consideration in case of eviction. In other words, the right of the landlord or landowner to the property or land has to be balanced against the rights of privacy and private life of the occupiers. We won that case in the lower courts; due to legal aid cuts, we weren’t able to take the case to higher courts, but it still sets a precedent that could be relevant for anyone facing eviction in future.
Grow Heathrow’s eviction resistance is symbolically significant. We are symbolic of direct-action resistance to the third runway at the heart of the community. As the current proposals stand, Grow Heathrow’s location is right at the end of where the third runway would be, so we’re in a physically important location.
We hope Grow Heathrow can be a focus for recapturing the energy that will emerge as the campaign grows. Anyone who wants to is positively encouraged to come and visit and get involved.
The airport is running a very effective propaganda campaign about expansion. They’ve set up fronts like “Back Heathrow”, which poses as a grassroots community campaign but is actually run by the airport’s PR company. They fund surveys and mine the statistics to try and cast doubt on the widely-accepted narrative that there’s profound local opposition to expansion.
From a working-class point of view, there’s an interesting intersection as many of the Heathrow workforce are also members of local communities. The airport is pushing two key claims in terms of jobs — one, that expansion will lead to significant job creation, and two, that if the airport doesn’t expand, it’ll lose out to the proposed “Boris Island” in the Thames Estuary, and may even close.
On the first claim, the proposed expansion plans show that the level of job creation wouldn’t actually be that significant, as a lot of the jobs and processes would be automated. The Davies Commission suggests there’d be a taxpayer-funded government investment of around £8 billion, and the number of jobs created doesn’t in any way match the level you’d expect for that kind of public funding. The claim that Heathrow might close because of “Boris Island” is also extremely unlikely, as the leaks show the Davies Commission is not taking that option particularly seriously. But it’s obviously very powerful scaremongering.
John McDonnell is doing a lot of work to engage with unions on the issue of jobs. There’s a different context this time because there’s not a Labour government, so the union leaderships may feel they can be more oppositional. There’s still a need for people in the labour movement with radical climate politics to take up this issue and make the arguments against expansion on a pro-worker, pro-working-class communities basis.
Grow Heathrow celebrates its fourth birthday with a weekend of events starting at 1pm on Saturday 1 March. For more information, see the Transition Heathrow website.