Fierce opposition to the expansion of Heathrow Airport has existed for as long as the plans to enlarge the UK’s largest – and Europe’s busiest – airport.
For over 20 years, campaigners have tirelessly and successfully pushed back against the proposals. They’ve managed to have plans scrutinised, scrapped, and legally contested.
When it often feels like the rot within politics runs too deep to root out, it’s refreshing to be reminded of what can be achieved when social justice and green issues transcend party politics.
Justine Bayley, chair of the Stop Heathrow Expansion group, told me that the cause enjoys support from people of all different political persuasions.
“I am fairly sure that our committee and wider supporters hold a whole range of political views, some very firmly and others more changeably,” she says.
In recent elections for Hillingdon Council, candidates from all major parties ran on the platform that they would oppose the airport’s expansion. Stop Heathrow Expansion’s campaign coordinator Robert Barnstone told me how the group benefits from this cross-party support.
“All parties vocally recognise that it’s in their interests to support our campaign because Heathrow’s expansion isn’t in the interest of the local area.”
While election campaigns where most people agree on a major issue can extinguish debate, it benefits the group to have their cause foregrounded.
“It’s important to us how people put their differences aside to support us,” Barnstone says. “In fact, our recent annual general meeting was attended by representatives from the Conservative administration of Hillingdon Council, as well as Labour councillors.”
There is a definite sense that the national government could be doing more. The recent revolving doors of Downing Street have only added uncertainty to an already chaotic government approach to Heathrow.
“Our national government has in recent years flipped and flopped one way and another, or sat on its hands and refused to say anything,” says Bayley. “We have no idea who will be in power if and when any decision has to be made, and which way they will then act.”
But she hasn’t let that hinder the campaign. She feels that Heathrow expansionists have a history of being economical with the truth, and that their credibility suffers from tenuous claims.
“We are confident of continuing support at a local level, both from Hillingdon Council and from many other local authorities around. They are all aware of the negative impacts any expansion would have.”
A majority of London MPs from all parties have also been consistent in their resistance. The hope that facts and sense prevail is instrumental in sustaining the opposition.
Ready for take-off?
Whether or not the expansion will actually come to fruition is unclear. After reaching out to John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Heathrow Airport Holdings, I was met with an answer that didn’t clarify what to expect.
A spokesperson said: “Heathrow expansion is critical for the UK’s future economic success. While we are now rebuilding capacity after the pandemic, we are also reviewing and looking ahead at the next steps for expansion.”
To Robert Barnstone, leaving the fate of the thousands of Hillingdon residents affected by these proposals hanging in the balance isn’t good enough. Communities are being kept in the dark about the future of their homes.
But he wouldn’t be surprised by an announcement that plans are going ahead. “It’s certainly something we’re no stranger to fighting, and we’ll continue to do so and continue to win.”
This optimism is echoed by Bayley. “Heathrow have to believe in the benefits of any expansion they may attempt to take forward or they would just look ridiculous. We know that most if not all of the benefits they claim are not realisable, and that they currently do not have the resources to undertake a major project.”
All this considered, polling shows that nearly two-thirds of the population are concerned with the impact expansion would have on the climate. Research from the UK Committee on Clinate Change says that a third runway would increase the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions by 6 million tonnes a year. Because this concern comes from a diverse coalition of minds, it’s not as easy as just pinning this on a certain political stance and dismissing them as being on the fringe of public opinion.
The Stop Heathrow Expansion group is a microcosm of the society we live in: Ordinary people with genuine concern for others and the environment have banded together and taken on corporate interests backed by billions of pounds. And they have no intention of backing down.
Yusra Abdulahi is a journalism student at the London College of Communication, UAL.