Diary

Ian Gilmour

I am off to the exotic – in name – Ramada Hotel, Heathrow to give evidence at the Public Inquiry into the British Airport Authority’s application to build a fifth terminal there. The words ‘fifth terminal’ are misleading. Terminal Five would be the third largest airport in Europe, exceeded in size only by the present-day Heathrow and Frankfurt. The Inquiry has already been running for nearly three years; the Inspector, Colin Vandermeer QC, and his co-adjutors, must be almost, so to speak, terminally bored. Yet they are still alert, courteous and formidably knowledgeable.

Heathrow is the worst-sited major airport in the world. Probably no other country would be crazy enough to place its principal airport at a spot which, when the prevailing wind is blowing, requires all aircraft coming in to land to fly first over its capital, one of the world’s most heavily populated cities. And I am pretty sure that if any other country had committed such a blunder, it would not magnify it by building another airport next door to the original mistake. Yet that is what the privatised BAA, in its selfless wisdom, is now proposing.

The airport was conceived in deceit – and nurtured by subterfuge. It would never have been built had not one or two ministers and several civil servants tricked the War Cabinet into believing that it was needed for the RAF. Even though he believed it was intended for that purpose, Winston Churchill thought it was a misuse of resources to start it in 1944; but he had more important things to think about and eventually consented. Had the Air Ministry told the truth, they would not have been able to proceed with their pet scheme. They could not have turned householders out of their homes by compulsory purchase, or wrecked prime agricultural land. There would have had to be a public inquiry, which would have exposed their project as the folly it was. Since then, the behaviour of our masters has not greatly improved.

In July 1963, when there were a mere 157,000 aircraft movements a year, the Committee on the Problem of Noise reported: ‘The situation at Heathrow is unprecedented . . . The noise in the residential areas close to the airport is the worst known in this country and the people who suffer it have no right of legal action to secure its abatement.’ Needless to say, the politicians and civil servants paid no attention. No action was taken and the sufferers from noise were given no legal rights.

In 1979, the Inspector at the Heathrow Fourth Terminal inquiry, Iain Glidewell, made the well-known pronouncement: ‘In my view, the present levels of noise around Heathrow are unacceptable in a civilised country.’ Yet he still permitted an increase in the volume of that noise by recommending the construction of a fourth terminal. Mr Glidewell did at least say that it was essential for the Government to reiterate that there would be ‘neither a fifth terminal nor any other major expansion of Heathrow’, and in its 1979 White Paper the Government duly gave that assurance. At Isleworth (where I’ve lived since 1953) the naive among us were comforted by that pledge. The more realistic merely wondered how long it would last; and only five years later, a second inspector, Graham Eyre, in his Report, criticised his predecessor for his views on a fifth terminal. In so doing he made forecasts about future noise levels and the maximum number of aircraft movements at Heathrow which have already proved to be ridiculously inaccurate. In any case, the 1979 assurance against further expansion was worthless.

Against the trend, there was an improvement in noise at night between 1988 and 1993, but that was brought to an end in that year in an underhand manner: Mr Justice Sedley described the Government’s approach as ‘devious and deeply unattractive’ and ‘a farrago of equivocation’. I sometimes wish we could have a Tribunal of Inquiry into the behaviour of governments over Heathrow during the last fifty years, on the lines of the recent Scott Inquiry into arms for Iraq.

As I am giving evidence both on behalf of the Isleworth Society and as an individual citizen, I inflict some personal experiences on the Inspector. I am a fairly early riser, usually getting up about 6 o’clock. That, however, does not make it any less annoying to be woken up earlier still by aircraft. On 19 January, I had what was for me an important meeting in the morning and was therefore hoping for a reasonably good night’s sleep. So when I went to bed on the 18th, I certainly did not intend to carry out research during the night for my evidence to the Inquiry. As it happened, I was woken up by an aircraft at 4.13. I tried to go back to sleep, but further aircraft followed at 4.22, 4.24, 4.36, 4.50, 5.06, 5.13, 5.18, 5.27, 5.29 and 5.35, at which point, exasperated, I got up. As I did so, I was of course aware that, according to the bizarre and hilarious Report of a Field Study of Airport Noise and Sleep Disturbance published in 1992 by the Department of Transport (and the self-serving and misleading use made of it by the Department), I had suffered no sleep disturbance from aircraft noise: I had merely been woken up and then kept awake by it.

At 6 a.m. I resumed my record of the arrival of aircraft. While reading of the concern for the environment professed by BAA and the Department of Transport and their anxiety to keep the nuisance to a minimum, I noted that aircraft passed both sides of me – both runways are used between six and seven – at 6, 6.02, 6.03, 6.04, 6.05, 6.08, 6.09, 6.11, 6.12, 6.14, 6.16, 6.18, 6.21, 6.25, 6.26, 6.27, 6.30, 6.32, 6.34, 6.35, 6.38, 6.40, 6.42, 6.47, 6.48, 6.50, 6.54, 6.55, 6.56, 6.57, 6.59. Thus between 4.13 and 5.35, 11 aircraft passed overhead; and between six and seven, 31 did so. There was nothing exceptional about the morning of 19 January. Furthermore, I am not a particularly light sleeper, and I am becoming increasingly deaf.

Put less personally, Isleworth has a population of some 30,000 people, who live between five and six miles east of Heathrow, and over whom up to 42 planes an hour fly for 70 per cent of the year by day and by night. BAA has claimed that the noise climate has improved significantly over the last twenty years. Since the number of flights has increased by almost 50 per cent in the last 11 years alone, that claim is inherently improbable: so improbable indeed that one wonders why they bother to make it. Although landing aircraft may be fractionally quieter than in the past, the difference is not apparent to the naked ear; so we have aircraft making the same noise as before, except that there are now a great many more of them.

BAA’s claim that Terminal Five would produce relatively few additional aircraft movements is similarly implausible. The same sort of pie in the sky has been fed to local inhabitants in the past in an attempt to still agitation and opposition to further expansion. These assurances have always turned out to be false, and I have no doubt that the same would be true in the case of a fifth terminal.

In their attempts to make people believe that Terminal Five would not greatly add to the current nuisance, BAA conveniently assumes that there will be no supersonic aircraft in service in 2015. That, too, is unlikely. The United States is spending a lot of money on researching a successor to Concorde, and Europe is spending some. So a large increase in their number is what we should probably expect. The arrival of fifty or more new ‘Concordes’ every day at Heathrow does not bear thinking about – except, of course, by BAA.

Greatly increased noise is far from being the only damage Terminal Five would do. A Heathrow almost doubled in size would be accompanied by a greatly extended urban sprawl. Green-belt land would be covered with buildings, which would amount almost to a new town. And the terminal would also produce a vast increase in road traffic. The traffic between the West and London is already very heavy. What used to be regarded as rush-hour conditions now last for most of the day. Improved rail links are greatly to be welcomed, but many of the enormously increased number of passengers generated by a fifth terminal would certainly want to travel by road. BAA’s proposal to intensify that congestion demonstrates its remarkable blindness to any interest but its own. This indifference stems, I believe, from its confusing its own interest in making bigger profits with the national interest, when the two things are not at all similar. In pursuit of rising profits, BAA has, by stuffing them with shops, already made the existing terminals far more uncomfortable than they need have been. And we know that one of the features – and purposes – of Terminal Five would be a vast shopping complex built on green-belt land.

Just as BAA now claims that it is needed to bring ‘Heathrow’s terminal capacity into balance with the airport’s runway capacity’, so, if Terminal Five were built, BAA would soon be claiming a need to bring Heathrow’s runway capacity into balance with its terminal capacity. Heathrow, to use the words of the present Inspector, would still go ‘creeping on’. Nearly twenty years ago, Colin Buchanan thought it inconceivable that anybody ‘would dare to underwrite a scheme’ for a fifth terminal. He reckoned without a privatised BAA. No wonder the local inhabitants think that in putting forward their plan BAA is, in the words of Hillingdon Council, ‘aggressive and arrogant’. Terminal Five would be the negation of all sensible planning. BAA evidently believes that it is important for British prestige that Heathrow continues to be the biggest airport in Europe, although other countries are sensibly looking not to increase the size of their largest airport but to find other sites and ease the pressure.

What should be done? There should be a curfew at Heathrow on night flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. except for emergencies. If other top international airports, such as Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sydney, Toronto and Seoul, can operate a curfew, Heathrow should be able to do the same. And there should be no further growth. BAA accepts that even with a fifth terminal, Heathrow will not be able to meet the demand it foresees in the South-East. Why then seek to expand an already overcrowded site when, according to BAA, development elsewhere will in any case be needed?

Unfortunately, Britain has long lacked a sensible transport or location policy, something for which successive governments are far more culpable than BAA. But if there is one place where further development would be highly damaging it is West London. At the same time, East London is in need of development. Clearly, therefore, airport development should take place in the East London corridor. Equally clearly, if at all possible, airports should be constructed so that the noise they make disturbs only fish and birds. That points to a new airport in the Thames estuary. One such plan, Marinair, has been fully developed on the drawing-board.

In over fifty years, no control has ever been achieved over Heathrow’s expansion and no government has treated the appalling environmental consequences with due seriousness. In contrast, at the rival hubs at Schipol or Charles de Gaulle, demand is to be met by well thought-out government decisions to build new airports to relieve the problems of congestion – an off-shore airport near Schipol and a third Paris airport towards Chartres. But Gatwick could expand only if a promise not to build a second runway were broken, and even a 15 million-passenger Stansted would not meet forecast demand by 2016. This leaves only the option of an entirely new South-East airport – and a massive transfer of short-haul passenger traffic from air to rail, as is planned on the Continent. The mega-retail, mega-jumbo fifth terminal desired by BAA would be out of date before it was begun.

Colin Buchanan described the 1943 decision to build London Airport at Heathrow as ‘the most disastrous planning blunder ever to hit our country’. A decision to build another Heathrow would be the second biggest such blunder. And it would, if anything, be even more inexcusable, because the progenitors of Heathrow in the Forties had no idea of the extent to which air travel would grow or the degree of nuisance it would create. The progenitors of the second airport would have no such excuse.