Heathrow – fight or flights?

Please note that this post has been edited with regard to quotes by Nic Ferriday who is commenting on behalf of Friends of the Earth, not the Green Party. The Green Party plan to comment on the issue shortly. 

When a leaflet came through the door telling us that “Your home could be impacted by an expanded Heathrow Airport” I began to wish that I’d paid more attention when the issue got a mention on the news. I don’t work at Heathrow or know anyone who does and as I haven’t been on a plane since 1980 I’ve had no reason to visit it in a very long time.
Occasionally I’ll spot a particularly pretty condensation trail overhead and sometimes, if I hear a plane more clearly than usual in Greenford I’ll think “they must be taking a different approach because it’s a windy day” as that’s what someone told me happens. In fact, apart from seeing “Heathrow” on the front of the 105 bus, I am barely conscious of it.

If the leaflet, published by the Coalition Against Heathrow Expansion, is to be believed residents of Greenford will be hearing many more airplanes passing overhead, in fact it shows one of the new flight paths that the third runway might allow for heading almost directly along part of Greenford Road. Another would be further to the east, over Perivale. At present the only aircraft that make an impression on me are the military helicopters from the base at Northolt as they clatter above the A40 (who can ignore a Chinook?) or those that have completed a flypast in central London on special occasions. Planes seemed to make far more of an impression on me during my childhood, spent in central London. Perhaps fewer of them fly over Greenford in comparison or I’ve just grown used to them. A third runway could change that.

Concerns about the expansion of Heathrow often centre on noise. The kind that seems to upset residents the most at present is that generated by passing traffic, especially if it’s caused by vehicles hitting potholes at night, which can also cause damaging vibrations. I suspect they would find it hard to believe that increased aircraft noise could cause much of a problem. According to Margaret Majumdar, the Secretary of Ealing Aircraft Noise Action Group, “We are not currently getting feedback from Greenford residents about aircraft noise, and EANAG has only one member in Greenford. In Perivale a committee member reports that there are occasional departures overhead, but clearly there will be regular departures over the north of the borough if there is a third runway. By the time a third runway is in use, and Greenford residents start complaining about noise and pollution, it will be too late to effect any improvement in the environment.”

When I asked John Stewart of HACAN, the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise about it he said that they do get some feedback from Greenford residents but not much. However, should the third runway go ahead the quality of life in the area would be affected as there are likely to be more take-offs. Margaret Majumdar told me “The effect of a third runway on Greenford is likely to be disastrous. There will be at least one easterly departure route over Greenford, and so Greenford will suffer departures overhead during the 30% of the time that Heathrow is on easterly operation, as south Hanwell and south Ealing suffer already. Ealing gets 35-40% of all easterly departures, some 260 a day while the annual movement limit is 480,000. With a new runway, the limit will be 720-760,000. Further south than Greenford, Ealing will suffer aircraft overhead all the time, landing on westerly operation as well as taking off on easterly operation…For many residents the noise will be severely disruptive, preventing enjoyment of gardens, concentration on work activity and interfering with normal conversation. There will be interruption of lessons in local schools when overhead noise is heard, perhaps every two or three minutes during the day.”

Nic Ferriday, speaking for Friends of the Earth in Ealing, told me “I don’t think there is much detail in the Airports Commission reports on Greenford. But with a roughly 50% increase in flights and passengers, it is clear that overall noise and air pollution will be worse than it would be with a two runway airport.” Gary Malcolm, leader of Ealing’s Liberal Democrats, (who has himself blogged on the matter) pointed out that “Hounslow already suffers from a bad level of noise pollution. This will affect the quality of education and physical fitness of many children who cannot easily learn with the constant background noise of plane flights. If expanding, Ealing, Greenford, Acton, Southall, West Ealing, Hanwell, Perivale and Chiswick would all suffer from more noise and also additional air pollution. Our children would be less likely to want to play outside due to the poorer conditions.” My partner attended a college in Hounslow years ago and even then it was impossible to have a conversation when an aircaft was passing overhead.

Would the negative effects of a third runway have an impact on the value of property or the amount of rent landlords can charge? HACAN’s John Stewart said “The evidence suggests not. Unless you live very close to the airport Heathrow doesn’t really affect London’s property market” and Margaret Majumdar told me “EANAG has no direct evidence of an effect of substantial overflying on house prices or rents, but believes that the prospect of this will be a disincentive for anyone thinking of moving into the area.”

Rob Gray, campaign co-ordinator for Back Heathrow (“a group of residents, businesses and community groups who have come together to campaign for a secure future for Heathrow Airport and defend the 100,000+ jobs that depend on it”) said “Noise and air pollution are both key issues that need to be tackled, and our campaign group will only support Heathrow expansion if it can reduce emissions and noise for local people over time. The airport is taking a number of steps to improve both air quality and noise, including encouraging airlines to use quieter and cleaner aircraft, and improving the rail and tube links to the airport. We will continue to push Heathrow to do as much as possible to ensure that a three runway operation is even quieter and cleaner than today’s two runway version.” Such “cleaner aircraft” would include those now used by Finnair, one of which landed at Heathrow for the first time on October 15th. “The Airbus A350 XWB’s cutting-edge technology reduces both nitrogen oxide emissions and noise, helping Heathrow be a better neighbour to local residents.”

Being a better neighbour is a vital element of any argument in favout of the airport’s expansion. Sir Howard Davies, chairman of the Airports Commission whose report, released in July this year, recommended Heathrow over Gatwick as the site for expansion stated “Adding capacity at Heathrow also provides an opportunity to change the airport’s relationship with its local communities as some overseas airports have done. To make expansion possible the Commission recommends a comprehensive package of accompanying measures including a ban on night flights and a new noise levy to fund a far stronger and more generous set of compensation and mitigation schemes.”

It is the promise of many more jobs that seems to have won over some residents. The Member of Parliament for Ealing North, Steve Pound, said “I have not had any comments from Greenford residents in respect of Heathrow except in respect of support for the third runway as an income generator. This opinion grows even stronger as we head towards Northolt and far weaker in the other direction.” According to Back Heathrow’s Rob Gray “Like the rest of west London and the Thames Valley, Greenford will benefit from the thousands of new jobs that will come from Heathrow’s expansion. This will not only mean high-quality, skilled jobs at the airport, but a range of new jobs in west London supported by the investment in new routes around the world. With up to 10,000 apprenticeships linked in with a bigger, better Heathrow, there is a wonderful opportunity to tackle youth unemployment numbers across the borough of Ealing. Often people separate ‘jobs’ and ‘quality of life’ but one can have a very positive effect on the other.”

Others I contacted dismissed this claim. Gary Malcolm said “The only real benefit is that it would create some jobs during the build process plus some once expanded but the net impact of expanding Heathrow would be much worse than where we are today.” Nic Ferriday said “There is constant lobbying from Heathrow airport and its cronies about economic benefit and jobs. In fact, the claims are extremely suspect.”

Steve Pound made an interesting point about the kind of jobs we might expect to be generated by expansion at Heathrow “As a huge proportion of BAA profits come from retail sales on the site and Crossrail will most likely increase accessibility I can see this becoming more significant and a Bluewater emerging – probably snappily entitled Blueskies.” What occurred to me about this suggestion is that shopping centres of this kind attract lots of traffic. You would want to leave “Blueskies” with a boot full of shopping, not carry it home on Crossrail. The concern of EANAG is that “Congestion on the A40 and A312 will be even worse than at present, as there are no plans for additional road capacity apart from possibly on the M25.” Whatever suggestions are made that a good proportion of the employment at an expanded Heathrow would be skilled and well paid there are still going to be a lot of unskilled workers struggling to pay public transport fares.

Rob Gray believes that “Greenford stands to gain from expansion much more than other areas in west London. With Crossrail’s opening in 2019, Greenford residents will be just a short train ride away from a direct link between central London and the the UK’s hub airport.” However, a briefing document by Friends of the Earth, produced to support letters sent to councils whose residents would be affected, rejects the claims made by expansion supporters that it could “cure” unemployment, pointing out that the Airports Commission says that an increase in extra jobs would require an increase in population, necessitating additional housing and a supporting infrastructure. I can’t help wondering if a great many of these new jobs would be of the minimum wage, menial kind, the toilet cleaners, the floor sweepers, the shelf stackers. Past experience suggests that these posts would be filled by transient migrant workers rather than young local residents, who want something better paid with a higher status. Those working in retail outlets which, as Steve Pound pointed out, are an important source of revenue for Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited (formerly BAA), are often the most vulnerable to economic downturns.

My own opinion? When it comes to air pollution I believe we should have put the brakes on a long time ago. I don’t believe that the employment that Heathrow might provide if the third runway went ahead is worth the suffering that all those extra flights might cause to future generations. The people of Greenford can already see the evidence of emissions from vehicles in the form of black dust and grime that works its way into their houses through doors and windows. Those who don’t recognise its significance may believe that a little more dirt is a small price to pay for greater prosperity. Campaigners opposing Heathrow’s expansion argue that emissions from planes are as harmful as those produced by road transport, however far up and far away they may seem. A daily and insidious assault on our health, not only do emissions affect our hearts and respiratory systems, new research suggests that they may even affect the ability of our children to learn and develop as well as they ought to. Older people might not escape the effects either.

The BBC’s “Newsnight” programme, in the edition broadcast on 12th October 2015, reported on work being carried out at the CREAL Institute (The Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology) in Barcelona. A summary can be seen here It suggests that exposure to high levels of air pollution may lead to autism, learning difficulties and ADHD in children, and neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia in adults. Toxins can be absorbed through the lungs and taken into the bloodstream, they may even be carried via the olfactory nerve directly to the brain. If this proves to be the case a ticking healthcare time bomb may be in the making.

Job creation is important – of course it is! – but I want jobs in Greenford, not an hour’s bus ride away at Heathrow, not a car journey away (and given Greenford’s love affair with cars that is more likely). I feel that Heathrow Airport and those who have come to rely on it as a source of revenue and employment face the same risks as towns who depend on a factory, plant or mine if air quality around it fails to improve or circumstances change.

When asked what he thought the impact of a third runway at Heathrow would be Steve Pound, said “Until I see the detailed actual proposal for the flightpath I can’t comment on the potential impact on Greenford but I very much doubt that Heathrow will return to a three runway operation as the environmental standards and EU regulations are not likely to be met.” Supporters of expansion say that the airport must expand or die. A page on the Back Heathrow site called “The case for Heathrow Airport” says that if it does not expand “then inevitably, over time, Heathrow will shrink and more jobs will be lost, leading to a spiral of decline as airlines and businesses that rely on a flourishing airport and a flourishing local economy relocate abroad to find these things and the security that goes with them.”

It has been suggested that the turn out at the No Third Runway demonstration against Heathrow that took place in October was poorer than its organisers might have hoped for. When it comes to activism by the people of Greenford such levels of apathy are predictable. It was difficult enough raising awareness about HS2. Unlike those communities close to the airport, we have not spent decades in a miserable state of limbo deafened by increasing levels of aircraft noise, waiting for others to decide whether their homes and heritage should be sacrificed to a gamble on improving the national economy. The potential suffering likely to be experienced by those in the London Borough of Ealing, even where they are more strident in their protests against expansion, pales into insignificance when compared with what Heathrow’s residents continue to go through. Greenford’s residents lead increasingly insular lives, believing that they can shut out the world and its problems. In this case they may think they’ll be able to do it with triple glazing.

If Heathrow is allowed to have a third runway it could be the thin end of the wedge. At the time of the release of the Airports Commission report Sir Howard Davies said “as there is no environmental or operational case for a fourth runway, the government should take action in Parliament to rule it out firmly and finally.” How can we certain that they will? What guarantee is there that further expansion won’t be called for? An effective lobby has taken Heathrow this far, will it take it even further if given the opportunity? As Steve Pound MP told me, “A third runway will increase employment prospects just as T5 did but I remember being told during the years of hearings at the Ramada that if BAA were allowed a fifth terminal they would never return to ask for more.”

Those considering whether they will feel the effects of the third runway should not be complacent, even though there are doubts whether expansion will happen at all. John Stewart told me “Air quality may not become an issue in Greenford but the fact that pollution levels are consistently above the EU legal limits close to the airport could stop a third runway being built.” Steve Pound said “Politically it’s dead as both of the two people who could be Mayor of London oppose it. One in its totality and the other in favour of Heathwick and the rapid rail link.” I was told that “Friends of the Earth is opposed to Heathrow expansion and new runways at other airports on the ground of climate changes, air pollution, noise, destruction of communities, destruction of habitats, public subsidies needed, etc.” and Gary Malcolm said “Locally in Ealing as well as regionally and nationally the Lib Dems believe expanding Heathrow would be a bad thing. It would create additional flights which will bring more noise and air pollution than we should have. The Lib Dems believe that more resources should be spent on improving longer distance rail capacity as well as projects like Crossrail which will help West London as well as the country as a whole. There is always talk about quieter planes but often they never materialise. The number and frequency of planes is also very crucial. We do not want to see expansion and recently the Lib Dems confirmed this position at our conference covering London issues.”

I tried, in vain, to get a response from the borough’s Conservatives. Emails were sent and ignored, others were forwarded and ignored. I have never, in fact, managed to get any quotes from them, even prior to the General Election. Ministers have been warned off making any statements until the government announces its response to the Airports Commission report to avoid its being subject to a judicial review and I began to think this applied to lesser mortals as well until Gregory Stafford, leader of Ealing Conservatives took to his Twitter account on 24th October as he canvassed for London mayoral Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith, who opposes expansion: @GregoryStafford “Out in Walpole Ward #Ealing talking to residents about local issues. #Heathrow expansion a big concern. Anger re: #Labour dirty streets too” In the latest edition of the Ealing Gazette (30th October 2015), he has taken his turn in the “Constituency Matters” column to comment on the subject. “The Labour leader refuses to state whether the local Labour Party is in favour or against a third runway. Conservatives locally remain steadfastly against the third runway. If Labour don’t want to be accused of playing both sides they should be equally unequivocal.”

Gary Malcolm told me “At a Council meeting the Labour party would not rule out Heathrow expansion and so it looks like Ealing Labour want to expand but are afraid to say so. The Lib Dem Council group voted against an expansion of Heathrow.” Margaret Majumdar said “Ealing Council is a member of the 2M group of local authorities currently preparing for legal action if and when the government decides to adopt the Airport Commission’s recommendation and proposes to expand Heathrow by building a third runway. The 2M group, representing at least 2 million residents, covers most of the London area and some home counties areas.” I asked John Stewart of HACAN why it is that Ealing council are not part of the Coalition Against Heathrow Expansion. “I’m not sure but there are fears that, if the green light is given for a 3rd runway, they may support it and try to do a deal with the airport.” One voter’s airport’s worth of jobs is another’s lungful (or earful) of problems. Ealing Labour said little about HS2 until large numbers of residents began to raise concerns about it. Following the decision to opt for a tunnel through the area their literature implied that it was down to their efforts.

We must consider whether the larger house, the widescreen television, the new car are worth it, bearing in mind the potential impact on the children who are yet to be born. Is it worth spending the last years of your life relying on the twenty-four hour care required by dementia sufferers to have all those things now? It isn’t just down to those who live in Greenford, who may gain from new employment opportunities. Those who travel abroad for leisure purposes must do some soul searching. When I was a child air travel was reserved for the wealthy or those in authority. It was glamorous and expensive. Economic migrants like my mother usually travelled by sea to this country and for many it was a one way trip. When it became clear that my grandmother was dying in Portugal my parents scraped together the money in a hurry so that we could fly to see her. Today many people fly abroad on a whim. Getting to European destinations is usually quicker and often cheaper by air, the cost of a Eurostar return to Paris can be matched or even beaten by a flight.

It hasn’t filled me with joy to learn that someone’s bender in Ibiza may increase the chance that my final years could be lost to Alzheimer’s. The thought that local children may not be able to play outside for the fear that poor air quality may cause them harm doesn’t make me think kindly of anyone taking advantage of cheap air fares just because they’re there. Unfortunately the apathy that campaigners for or against anything usually encounter in Greenford is as likely to be evident with regard to the issue of Heathrow’s expansion as it is with anything else. Few will consider fighting the flights.

I am grateful to Simon Birkett (@CleanAirLondon) for the link to air pollution research.

Images and text © Albertina McNeill 2015 except for quotes. Do not reproduce without written permission on each occasion. All rights reserved. Do not add text or images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright.