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Disobedient Objects: An artist's take on the #Heathrow13

Marwan Kaabour at Barnbrook, an artist and graphic designer, who worked on the V&A’s ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition and Banksy’s Dismaland, offered to immortalise the compound lock-on Plane Stupid used at Heathrow as one of his ‘how-to’ information cards. We said ‘yes please’, and here it is ...


Thanks, Marwan.

For more information, have a look at the V&A’s website here.

We have since learnt the hard way not to lie on our belly when our arms are locked in tubes, but to lie on our backs!

Nic Ferriday Statement

I work as a volunteer at the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF). I have a Physics degree and worked as an engineer at British Telecom before I took early retirement. I have been interested and concerned in environmental issues for many years. I live in the London Borough of Ealing, in West London and have done for many years. I was previously involved locally in Friends of Earth and it was apparent to us that Heathrow Airport and any possible expansion was the most significant local environmental issue.

The Aviation Environment Federation describes on its website in the following terms:

“the principal UK NGO campaigning exclusively on the environmental impacts of aviation and promoting a sustainable future for the sector. We formed as a federation in 1975 at a time when the sector was beginning to grow rapidly and noise was becoming an issue around airfields and airports. As aviation is exempt from noise nuisance legislation our members sought action to influence the national policy level.

AEF continues to focus on policy change but our work now extends beyond national policies to influencing European and global policy makers. Aviation has environmental, social and economic impacts and so despite being an organisation that is small in size, our work covers issues ranging from local air quality to global climate change, and from local participation in an airport consultative committee to the overall national economic impact of a new runway.”

I took part in the Public Inquiry into Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport from 1995 onwards and gave evidence to that public enquiry.

Being a resident of Ealing, I am personally directly affected by Heathrow Airport. Most noticeably I am affected by noise. When there are easterly winds, planes take off directly overhead. I do not know if I am personally affected by air pollution, but would say I probably am simply based on the fact Heathrow is by far the biggest polluter in the area and we are downwind from Heathrow. I am unaware of any personal health problems attributable to air pollution. The biggest source of air pollution where I live is road traffic. 

My work at the AEF consists of being a Case Officer. If members of public or organisations came to us with an enquiry I would take up the issue and see if I could assist. In short, my work involves conducting research, advice and advocacy. I have been doing this for around 15 years now.

I do not have technical qualifications on air pollution monitoring or forecasting/simulation, but have a general understanding of the government policy and social and political issues surrounding air pollution. I have a scientific background and so am comfortable interpreting the various scientific research and publications within my area of expertise.

In terms of air pollution, my understanding of the aim of UK Government policy is to protect the population’s health in accordance with national, European and international obligations on air pollution. There is a recognition and acceptance that air pollution has a substantial negative impact on the population’s health and causes and contributes to ill health and premature death. However, based on my experience, we have had successive governments which have failed to take action on air pollution. Because of this failure to do so, the Government were taken to the Supreme Court by ClientEarth and lost, because of their failures to address air pollution and abide by their own commitments to abide by EU air pollution directives.

This approach towards the Government’s legal obligations in terms of air pollution seems to have permeated into the Airports Commission’s work, and the importance that Commission’s work has attributed towards air pollution.

The Airports Commission started its work about three years ago. The purpose of the Airports Commission was to look at how Britain could protect and enhance its Airport hub status. It rapidly morphed into looking at whether we need more capacity, and in particular in the south-east. Hub airports are where people change flights and service long distance flights. The majority of flights however are short–haul. The hub debate seems to come down to whether we ought to expand Heathrow to protect its status as a hub vis-à-vis, say, Dubai.

The Commission looked at demand and concluded fairly early the UK needed a new runway in the South East. They brushed aside arguments that we did not. They then looked at a long list of possible options for new runways. This then narrowed to a shortlist of three comprising of the Heathrow NW option (which has been recommended), an extended Northern runway at Heathrow and an extra runway at Gatwick Airport. They only looked at air pollution in very rudimentary terms. Levels of air pollution were lower at every other location, but nonetheless the shortlist of three included two options at Heathrow Airport. This fact alone indicates that air pollution was not a significant consideration when it came to selecting the most suitable option for a new runway, and indeed is reflective of the Government’s attitude generally towards air pollution and aviation policy.

In November 2014 the Airports Commission published the first major report by Jacobs Consultancy. I have doubts over the independence of the consultancy as they were being paid by the Commission. It was subsequently accepted the report had shortcomings and they did more detailed computer simulations on air pollution modelling before publishing a further report in May 2015.  A critique of both reports, together with context of the reports, is available on request. 

The Airports Commission’s concluding report in July 2015 seemed not to take into account the May 2015 air pollution study in anything more than a superficial way. This is unsurprising given the timing of the publications. This seemed to suggest they were going through the motions with this May 2015 study and had always intended to have Heathrow as the preferred option, whatever the later air pollution study said.

Regardless of the established links between aviation and climate change and air pollution, all the main political parties bar the Green Party think aviation has a strong ability to transform the economy, much in the same way that people used to think about motorways. Within the Conservative party there is something of a divide. Generally there is quite a lot of support for growth of aviation in terms of expanding capacity. There is however much more opposition to growth at particular places. Opposition to Heathrow Airport is perhaps the most prominent of these examples because of the levels of pollution and the number of people affected. Zac Goldsmith MP (for Richmond-upon-Thames) is prominent amongst these local opponents. It seems the support for the principle of expansion is there, but not for the local reality. The same is true in the Labour Party; there has been general support for the apparent economic benefits of airport expansion but fierce opposition from local opponents such as John McDonnell MP.

People outside of London have accused local residents of wanting to halt growth to the economy by prioritising their local concern. It’s true to say the issue is difficult. If people are driving, using airports and other industrial processes, it seems to me it is hard, but by no means impossible, to comply with the environmental legislation.

The biggest source of air pollution is road traffic where I live. You would have to constrain road traffic to reduce air pollution significantly. The problem at Heathrow is that when the airport is added, it makes things worse. Clearly if the airport is expanded, this will make things worse. There has been a suggestion of imposing a congestion charge around Heathrow to tackle this. This seems inconceivable politically. I cannot see the air pollution problem being solved any time soon. This new proposal to expand Heathrow will make it worse.

As far as the UK Government and the EU are concerned, air pollution limits are absolute. The limits do not allow breaches for economic growth or any other reason. The EU has said UK is in breach at a number of locations and UK is required to take action to reduce these levels to acceptable levels as soon as possible. The UK Government has now published a plan (which has been criticised by ClientEarth) to comply within a certain number of years.

When looking at the proposed mitigation to counter the effects of air pollution at an expanded Heathrow Airport in the Airports Commission, my initial reaction was that this is not much more than a series of good ideas. The mitigation was not actually recommended by the Airports Commission. In my view, given the importance of this issue it is not good enough to simply have good ideas that might work.

I am aware that the Airports Commission has said that capacity should not be released if a new runway is built until the air pollution standards are met. I cannot believe that once billions of pounds of taxpayers and private sector money had been spent on expansion, it will be possible to resist the pressure to use the runway, regardless of the levels of air pollution. It would be politically inconceivable to leave a runway empty whilst there was an argument about whether to use it because of air pollution.  Without the confidence in concrete proposals and recommendations to solve the air pollution problem, the Airports Commission ought not to have recommended it be built.

There has been opposition at various levels to airport expansion. People who would lose houses have more immediate and different concerns than air pollution and long term health issues. Then there is a swathe of people affected by aircraft noise and also concerned about air pollution and road congestion at local and regional levels. There is then a third category of people concerned about aviation policy in general such as Friends of Earth and the AEF, who are more concerned about the relationship between aviation and climate change.

As an organisation, the AEF have engaged throughout the process. The Airports Commission held quite a lot of sessions with individual groups and big public meetings. Lots of documents have been put out for consultation. We have responded fully to those. We have written to MPs and explained the situation as we see it. We have done as much as we could bearing in mind we are a national organisation. We have also attended party political conferences and done press work. We only have three full time staff. Our director represents all the world’s NGOs on the International Civil Aviation Authority, concerned particularly with Climate Change. The Aviation industry and Heathrow Airport have hugely more resources and it is difficult to counter the scale of their PR.

I do think that we have had an impact but if I am honest, I think it has been modest. It is not because of the quality of work we have done, but the quantity.

I think we are listened to by officials at the Department for Transport and MPs. But broadly speaking we are listened to by people who are already supportive of our work. Our ability to influence the public at large has been much less given the levels of PR from Heathrow Airport and Business First and the majority of the press.

Even when drawing the relationship between air pollution and premature death, we have not had great successes in bringing about the shift in policy that would be needed to reduce these levels of death. I think this is because there is a lack of understanding and willingness to understand public health issues. The contrast in publicity and concern between the 29,500 people who die annually from air pollution and the handful who die tragically in terrorism is huge. Most people appear not to want to know, either because it is an uncomfortable truth or gets in the way of other policies. The fact there are legal obligations in regard to air pollution does not seem to make much difference.

I have been a campaigner for nearly 40 years. In my experience, writing to MPs, responding to consultations, meeting officials and other conventional methods seem to have very little impact. As an organisation we run the risk of being co-opted onto committees which take up considerable time and compromise our independence. We see consultation processes which are charades, where policy has been determined in advance.

The democratic process is a bit of a sham. Unfortunately in reality it does not work when it comes to complex public policy processes such as this.

I am of the view that action is necessary to address air pollution and climate change caused by aviation. As a society we have known about the health impacts for a number of years and there has been virtually no action. All the work of the existing institutions and policy consultations have not succeeded in addressing these problems of air pollution. It may be the Government does indeed want to take action, but it cannot in the face of vested interests such as the motoring lobby and other business interests.

In this particular case, the thing which could have made a difference would have been if the government appointed somebody genuinely independent to chair the Airports Commission. It was so clear it was not independent. Howard Davies was chosen by government and was in contact with the government throughout the process. The secretariat for the Airports Commission was drawn largely from the Department for Transport.

We have experience as an organisation of lobbying the Department for Transport. Lobbying civil servants has been fairly soul-destroying. Air pollution is the statutory responsibility of the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). It is a weak department and has been heavily cut. In comparison to the Department for Transport (which is responsible for aviation policy), it does not appear to have much clout in determining policy which affects air pollution and climate change.

Even where the evidence of the link between aviation, air pollution and climate change is accepted and the consequences of those are clearly established, and legal obligations in place purporting to ensure compliance, the political process has not produced policy which allows for compliance with these obligations and reduce the harmful effects of non-compliance. I do not feel the conventional approaches have worked on this issue. I have learned it is not good enough to just be right on an issue or have legislation in place, when there are so many people who do not want to take action. It is my view therefore that the Defendants were justified in taking the action that they did and that it was necessary for them to do so. 

Runway Occupation on Trial – final day of evidence

Scheduling note – the trial will conclude on Monday the 25th of January, in Willesden Magistrates Court, with closing statements heard in the morning and verdicts given in the afternoon. The trial will not be in session until then.

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016, London – Today in Willesden Magistrates Court, evidence was heard from John McDonnell MP, Professor Alice Bowes-Larkin, and the four remaining defendants.

John McDonnell’s evidence was not heard in full due to the Judge accepting the points he was addressing, and therefore ruling the statement irrelevant. Justice Wright said:

“I can say that I will find that each of the defendants genuinely felt exasperated that their very considerable efforts to draw the attention of those in authority to the very real threat that climate change poses have not been effective. I am therefore not going to allow Mr McDonnell to give live evidence.

“I would say to the defendants, in respect of what you wanted him to say, you've already won.”

Her ruling on John McDonnell’s evidence is available here –

And John McDonnell’s full statement is available here –

Statements from three local residents from the Heathrow area were read out, detailing the debilitating and life-threatening medical conditions they were suffering from as a consequence of living near to the airport.

Character references for the defendants were also read out in court, from a variety of public figures including High Court Judge Peter Jackson and a long list of barristers and solicitors.

In a surprise to the defence, the prosecutor accepted that the defendants’ primary motivation in occupying the runway was to stop the carbon emissions from the planes prevented from taking off. In response to defendant Richard Hawkins’ claim that stopping these emissions was the ‘primary function’ of the action, prosecutor Mr McGhee said: “I don’t think we disagree about that.”

Phil Ball, Plane Stupid spokesperson said:

“On Monday the judge will rule on our defence, which is that the defendants had no choice but to take the actions they did to stop carbon emissions. She refused to hear witnesses testify in person that unlawful air pollution shortens every Londoner’s life by two years and that it’s almost too late to stop climate chaos that could leave the planet uninhabitable.  

“Our case rests on the political system having failed to deal with the threat of climate change. The zombie third runway threat came back to life even after a ‘no ifs, no buts’ unequivocal pledge by the prime minister, and the High Court ruling that third runway plans breached the Climate Change Act. But people power killed it before, and people power will kill it again.”

Alice Bowes-Larkin is one of the UK’s leading climate scientists, and a specialist in the climate impacts of aviation. Her evidence, which was read to the court, mentioned that Heathrow “is the airport with the highest CO2 contribution in the world in terms of combined international and domestic flights” and “this puts Heathrow expansion at odds with the UK Government’s commitment to avoiding a ‘well below’ 2’C target, unless a major programme of efficiency and biofuel development are delivered in tandem.”

Sian Berry, the Green Party’s candidate for the London mayoral elections, came to court to support the defendants, despite her evidence having been ruled as inadmissible by the judge. Her statement is available here –

George Monbiot’s statement was also ruled inadmissible, and is available here –

Writing on how the activists will be seen in the future, he said:

“They will be regarded not as outlaws and subversives, but as democratic heroes. Succeeding generations, struggling with the impacts that our government’s failures to take action on climate change bequeathed them, are likely to be amazed that they could have been seen in any other light.”

In all, of the ten defence witnesses, only four had their evidence allowed, and none were permitted to appear in court.

The runway occupation, under the banner of anti-aviation expansion group Plane Stupid and the first on a Heathrow runway, lasted six hours and delayed or cancelled dozens of flights. The activists, who are all pleading not guilty, are accused of aggravated trespass and trespassing airside without authority.

The defendants are Sheila Menon, 43, of Hackney, east London, Rebecca Holly Sanderson, 27, of Machynlleth, Powys; Richard Steven Hawkins, 32, and Kara Lauren Moses, 31, both of Heol y Doll, Machynlleth; Ella Gilbert, 23, of Finsbury Park, north London; Melanie Strickland, 32, of Waltham Forest, north-east London; Danielle Louise Paffard, 28, of Peckham, south-east London; Graham Edward James Thompson, 42, of Hackney, north-east London; Cameron Joseph Kaye, 23, Edward Thacker, 26, Alistair Craig Tamlit, 27, and Sam Sender, 23, all of West Drayton, west London; and Robert Anthony Basto, 67, of Reigate, Surrey.




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Previous coverage –



Defence summary

The defendants have all pleaded not guilty and argue that their action was necessary due to the airport's contribution to life-threatening climatic changes. Furthermore, Heathrow expansion is inhumane to the local residents and those at the sharp end of climate change, and hugely environmentally destructive. The fact that it’s still being considered at all is a testament to the superiority of corporate lobbying over democracy and scientific evidence. The defendants are represented by barristers instructed by Mike Schwarz of Bindmans, and Raj Chada of Hodge Jones and Allen. Defence witnesses (if not deemed inadmissible by the court) will include politicians, scientists, local residents and prominent authors.  

Heathrow is a big issue

Heathrow’s third runway has been the biggest iconic battleground for both climate change activism and local resistance to imposed national infrastructure. The issue has become such a political hot potato it has been kicked down the road by every government for decades. 

This was the first, much anticipated runway occupation at LHR

After years of scare stories from the press that climate activists were planning to occupy the runways at Heathrow, in July 2015 it finally happened. There was international coverage in 2007 of Climate Camp pitching up on Heathrow’s doorstep for a week, and ten years of continuous pressure from Plane Stupid, Greenpeace and other groups, who occupied various runways but never Heathrow. But last July, David Cameron’s grinding slow-motion U-turn on the issue drove thirteen activists to occupy and close the north runway at Heathrow at 4.00am on July 13th, 2015, for the first time.

Activists including a climate science graduate and many with no previous convictions, all risking three month prison terms

Some of the activists were new to aviation protests, some were more experienced activists, like 67y/o atmospheric physicist Rob, and 23y/o climate science graduate Ella. Some are residents of Sipson who have and continue to campaign against the third runway in a variety of ways, like 23y/o Cameron and 26y/o Eddy, some from London, like 32y/o Melanie who works for a health charity, and the first Plane Stupid activist to ever be arrested in 2005, 42y/o Graham, others from further afield, including three from Wales. Most of the activists have no previous convictions. They are all facing up to three months in prison.

Action was effective, disruptive and difficult to move

The occupation took the form of a sophisticated ‘lock-on’, with the legs of a tripod of scaffolding poles piercing a triangular cage of Heras fencing, with one or two activists locked to every corner, and everything connected to everything else, to make the whole structure as immovable as possible. It took the specialist police extraction squad over six hours to remove them from the runway, during which time many flights had to be cancelled.

Runway is ‘all or nothing’ issue

The reason Heathrow is such a unique, iconic battleground in national politics is that it has come to represent the big test of a government’s seriousness about climate change. Dirty energy infrastructure can be replaced with clean, local issues can be resolved by relocation, but aviation is always extremely dirty, with no clean tech version in production. Local residents oppose Heathrow and Gatwick, as well as other airports around the country which had expansion plans before the problems of aviation expansion became well known. And they are campaigning not for the new runway to be somewhere else, but for there to be no new runways. The third runway is all-or-nothing, there is no room for compromise.

HTW’s emissions are illegal, 3rd runway would be more so

The environmental progress made globally, in Europe, and in the UK prior to 2010, has left a legislative trail. Heathrow’s air quality is the worst outside central London, with NOx and other pollutants well above the legal maxima (and London breached its EU air pollution limits for the whole year in just eight days). And the 2008 Climate Change Act includes legally binding emissions targets which ‘business as usual’ expansion of aviation would wreck. Heathrow’s current operations are illegally polluting, and a new runway is not going to improve things.

Broad opposition led to runway cancellation, and will again

The intensity of the opposition to Heathrow, which encompasses MPs, cabinet ministers and all the London mayoral candidates from all parties, as well as the current London Mayor, the local councils, residents’ groups, green NGOs and direct activists like Plane Stupid, finally stopped what had only a few years earlier been seen as an entirely inevitable development in 2010. David Cameron, between hugging huskies and declaring his government the greenest ever, made the now infamous election pledge ‘no ifs, no buts, no third runway’, and many west Londoners voted for that pledge. That huge coalition of opposition is ready to come back together to oppose a new runway in the courts, at the ballot box, and on the ground.

Runway pledge Cameron’s last shred of integrity, tories’ last shred of greenery

Now his supposed opposition to the third runway is the last flaky patch of greenwash still adhering to the tory brand. As foreign leaders and UN officials voice their confusion at Cameron’s government trying to shut down the clean tech sector and prop up the industries of the last century, as Britain sweeps up the debris from the climate impacts already hitting us, and as the entire world from the US to China, agrees to a more urgent climate stabilisation programme, Heathrow is the last memory of Cameron’s ‘modernisation’ programme for his party.

System doesn’t work, so we need direct action

The government continues to promise to deal with climate change, most recently at the COP in Paris and in wellies in Cumbria, whilst continuing to make it worse and hope no-one puts two and two together. The thirteen activists, all facing possible prison sentences, have watched the continuous parade of lies and broken promises from Heathrow and successive governments, and realised that no amount of scientific evidence will be enough to make them stay within the law or safe emission limits, and citizens need to stand up against the lobbying power of major industries before it’s too late. When the Prime Minister is set to break a ‘no ifs, no buts’ pre-election and manifesto pledge, civil disobedience is needed to uphold democracy. The runway occupation is what democracy looks like.

Judge Wright's ruling on John McDonnell's witness statement

In that statement, he [John McDonnell] talks about a number of things, including his views over the development of 4th terminal at Heathrow. His opposition to further expansion, based on the strongly held views of many constituents, living in surrounding villages. The concerns of local residents about the building of a third runway, for a variety of reasons, including the impact of increased air pollution. He talks about the deleterious effect of the expansion of the airport on climate change and confirms he has campaigned against further expansion of the airport.

It talks about a High Court action in 2010 , which led to recommendations and promises from planning inspectors. He says that promises made have not been observed. He gives opinion on the debate about expansion of Heathrow and talks about the benefits of direct action, which he says are many, although it may cause short term inconvenience.

In order to allow his evidence to be given, I have to say if it is relevant.

[Defence barrister] Mr Chada has argued that it is relevant because during cross examination of [defendant] Ms Strickland, [Prosecution barrister] Mr McGhee asked a number of questions which were designed to establish that there were other courses of action open to her, including standing for elected office in order to use influence the democratic process, in order to achieve her goals. Mr Chada's case is, in effect, that Mr McDonnell provides evidence that the democratic process has not worked and therefore it is relevant to establish the necessity and proportionality of the action taken. 

I have endeavoured to persuade Mr McGhee simply to agree some Section 10 admissions. But he rightly points out that admissibility is entirely dependent upon relevance.

What I have to decide is whether the defendants genuinely believed that their actions were necessary to prevent death or serious injury. And, if the answer to that is yes, that objectively their actions were necessary and proportionate to achieve that end. Nothing in Mr McDonnell's statement assists me in my answer to these questions – it only assists me to the extent that I would need convincing of the necessity to take action on the basis that the defendants felt they had exhausted all other avenues for a particular purpose, not in relation to the threat to life or limb.

I can say that I will find that each of the defendants genuinely felt exasperated that their very considerable efforts to draw the attention of those in authority to the very real threat that climate change poses have not been effective. I am therefore not going to to allow Mr McDonnell to give live evidence.

I would say to the defendants, in respect of what you wanted him to say, you've already won.

George Monbiot statement

Successive governments of the UK, including the current one, have pledged repeatedly to limit the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, in order to meet the global target of no more than two degrees of warming. These pledges have taken the form of manifesto promises, public statements, negotiating positions at international talks and cross-party support for the Climate Change Act 2008, which establishes the policy of an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 as a legal obligation.

But, in common with other governments and international bodies, they have fudged the issue of aviation emissions, collectively failing to bring these within climate targets and emission reduction efforts. As Alice Bows-Larkin's testimony so ably demonstrates, aviation (and shipping) threaten to undermine the UK’s legal and international obligations.

The continued failure to address this issue, combined with the government’s commitment to the continued expansion of aviation capacity, makes a mockery of its pledges and targets, and substantially undermines the global target, affirmed at Paris, of no more than 2 degrees of warming, and ideally no more than 1.5. 

When a government breaks its own promises, undermines its own targets and threatens the common welfare of its own people and of citizens elsewhere in the world, what democratic options are left open to us? There is a long and honourable tradition in this country and elsewhere of citizens taking non-violent direct action in order to challenge unrepresentative, injust and life-threatening political settlements. Without such action, women, agricultural labourers and other propertyless men might have been left without a vote. The apartheid regime in South Africa may have persisted. The British might have remained in India. The transatlantic slave trade might not have come to an end. In fact, there are few aspects of what almost everyone on Earth now regards as human progress that have not been assisted by actions of the kind taken by the Heathrow 13.

In years to come, those who put their own liberty and in some cases their lives at risk in order to press governments to take action to prevent climate breakdown will be regarded in the same light as the suffragettes, the chartists, the anti-apartheid activists and the antislavery movement. They will be regarded not as outlaws and subversives, but as democratic heroes. Succeeding generations, struggling with the impacts that our government’s failures to take action on climate change bequeathed them, are likely to be amazed that they could have been seen in any other light.

Sian Berry statement

Statement in support of Plane Stupid campaigners

My name is Sian Berry. I have been an environmental campaigner for 12 years, working mainly in the area of climate and transport, and most recently worked as a road campaigner for Campaign for Better Transport where air pollution was a strong focus of my work, and where I was our representative on the Healthy Air Campaign coalition run by environmental lawyers Client Earth. 

I am currently the Green Party candidate for Mayor of London, and every one of my counterparts from the main parties are united with me in opposing a new runway at Heathrow because of the effects it will have on Londoners due to noise and air pollution. I also oppose a new runway at Gatwick on the grounds of its climate change impact. 

I strongly believe the campaigners acted out of necessity – the fact that the Government continues to consider a new runway at Heathrow is one of the most important problems we face in solving two major crises: climate change and air pollution. 

The proposals have been dropped before, there is a wealth of evidence of the harm they will cause and there have been many years of campaigning, by many residents around Heathrow, environmental campaigners and politicians from all parties, including local MPs (who include the current Mayor of London) local councillors, and politicians across London and the South East. 

Clear promises were made before the 2010 election by the current Prime Minister, upon which many people concerned about climate change and pollution may have based their votes, so the fact that a new runway is still being considered – and indeed was recommended by the Davies commission that was established after the last election, represents a severe deficit of democracy.  

Climate change

On climate change, the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is an acknowledged imperative by the Government, and a large reduction in emissions is part of a number of government targets and policies. 

However, the government’s aviation policy, including consider expanding Heathrow – a decision against which could have been made last November but has been postponed – is set to increase emissions and so runs counter to these aims and risks making it impossible to avoid breaching targets and limits set by the Government itself by reducing emissions only in other sectors.

Climate change occupies a high priority in UK policy because of the widely acknowledged human and economic costs of not preventing its effects on the earth’s ecosystems and on human health and well-being – many of which are already being felt, especially in developing countries.

The serious harm to human life that will be caused by continued climate change has been analysed and documented by many national and international bodies, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

Air pollution

At Heathrow, air pollution is also a significant concern. Increasing the number of flights with a new runway will not only increase pollution emitted by airplanes themselves, but also increase the need for surface transport for passengers and workers and result in morepollution due to cars and lorries. Diesel cars, vans, taxis and heavier vehicles including buses and HGVs are responsible for a high proportion of London’s nitrogen dioxide emissions.

Two large motorways (the M25 and M4) run past the airport, and these and other nearby roads would see a large increase in traffic due to the expansion of the airport if it goes ahead. The areas around these roads are already in breach of EU air pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide pollution which the UK should have complied with by 2010. 

In retaining Heathrow expansion as a potential option, the Government’s interpretation of the law in relation to the risk of a new runway causing a further or continued breach of the relevant EU Directive is incorrect. 

Reporting to the EU is based on particular monitoring sites, which usually represent the worst breach of the legal limits in a reporting zone. For London this reference site is at Marylebone Road. The argument given is that increasing pollution at Heathrow therefore does not risk a further breach because it will only have a small impact on pollution at the Marylebone Road site. 

But this is clearly not the case – were efforts from the Mayor of London to result in Marylebone Road and other central London areas falling below the legal limits for nitrogen dioxide, the area around Heathrow would then become the relevant point for reporting to the EU and London and the UK would still be in breach of the Directive. 

The same erroneous argument has also been used by Highways England in relation to road schemes, including the M4, which it would like to expand in the area around Heathrow. While at Campaign for Better Transport I challenged this interpretation at the recent examination on the M4, and a government decision on planning permission will be made later this year.  

Our submissions to the M4 examination included the clarification advice given in 2013 by the European Commission to Mr Simon Birkett of the Clean Air in London campaign that “limit values must indeed be complied with throughout the territory of any given air quality zone." It is not acceptable to allow pollution to remain above legal limits in a particular area for longer, just because for the time being there is somewhere else worse off within the same zone.

Knowledge of the deadly effects of air pollution is growing, including its effects on individual lives (researchers at Kings College are finding alarming results from their study of lung development in young children in areas of Newham and Tower Hamlets with high levels of air pollution) and across the population. 

Immediate harm and the reduction that would come from reducing aviation around Heathrow

Climate change is a long term problem – and a risk to life in many countries already. Recent severe weather in the UK has shown that there are also severe risks to life here too. Not expanding Heathrow, and stemming the growth in demand for aviation would have a very beneficial effect on the UK’s ability to contribute to the global reductions needed in carbon emissions. 

Air pollution is already exerting a severe toll on life in the UK, and especially in the immediate area around Heathrow in London.

In July 2015 the first estimate of the number of early deaths in London’s population due to excess levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution was made by Kings College and published as part of the Mayor of London’s Air Quality Strategy. This estimated the total mortality burden of long-term exposure to NO2 at up to 88,113 life-years lost per year in London, equivalent to 5,879 additional deaths annually.

Adding to this burden with a new runway, and associated ground transport would be highly damaging. In contrast, reducing aviation levels would help to reduce this mortality too.

Statement by John McDonnell MP

I have lived in my constituency for nearly 40 years. I represented the constituency as a councillor on the Greater London Council from 1981 to 1986 and I have been the local Member of Parliament from 1997.

Throughout the periods I have held elected office for this area I have been closely involved in dealing with the issues associated with the development of Heathrow Airport. This has included attendance at the planning inquiries on the development of Terminal Four and Terminal Five. For over 30 my years I have convened meetings of local residents to discuss the expansion of Heathrow airport and to consult them on the various proposals to expand the airport that have been brought forward over this period.

Although following local consultations I accepted the development of a fourth terminal at the airport, I opposed any further expansion based upon the strongly held views of many of my constituents, especially those living in the Heathrow villages and in the south of Hillingdon, that the levels of noise and air pollution and the loss of homes and indeed whole communities was unacceptable.

There continues to be extremely high levels of concern expressed by local residents at the threat of a third runway. Local people living in the Heathrow villages are naturally distressed that their homes will be demolished or rendered unliveable as a result of air pollution and increased noise. This will impact upon 4000 homes, accommodating approximately 10,000 local residents.

People are concerned at the rise in air pollution bearing in mind that the air pollution levels in the vicinity of the airport are already often above EU limits. They worry this causes some constituents health problems. Two local schools will be demolished if a third runway goes ahead as well as local community centres and community facilities. The village of Harmondsworth will largely be wiped off the face of the earth and the village of Sipson rendered unliveable.

Heathrow pollution is killing some of my constants and harming the heath of others. The EU limits are designed to keep people safe and yet repeated beaches, an immediate threat to people’s lives and health, are allowed to continue, and may be allowed to increase.

There is also an increasing appreciation and concern amongst my constituents about climate change and the deleterious effect airport expansion will have on tackling this threat to our future. Just as we know the toxic pollution Heathrow is producing now will effect people’s health, we know that the greenhouse gasses it is emitting will warm the climate, and yet we are still talking about expansion.

For all these reasons many of my constituents and I have been campaigning for many years against additional terminals and runways at Heathrow. We have used a wide range of methods in these campaigns including lobbying their local councillors, Members of Parliament and Government ministers. In addition they have used traditional methods of public meetings, marches, demonstrations and peaceful direct action.

The opposition to expanding Heathrow became a lot more visible, and more powerful, in the last ten years, as the environmental movement focussed on aviation, and particularly aviation growth, as a major threat to the climate, and the issue grew to become the defining local issue for many MPs and other politicians representing west London.

During 2010, along with counsellors, residents and environmental campaigners we took the government to the high court over plans to expand Heathrow. During this case we argued that the case for a third runway was not economically and environmentally sound. We won this case on these grounds and the judge said that expansion of Heathrow was untenable in law and common sense. This is still the view I hold today.

This campaigning has secured recommendations and promises from planning inspectors, politicians and indeed the owners of Heathrow airport that no further expansion would or should go ahead. The Planning Inspector at the Terminal 5 inquiry advised against further Heathrow expansion and the airport owners wrote to my constituents saying that they did not need and would not seek a third runway if they were given permission for a fifth terminal. The current prime minister prior to the 2010 general election famously stated “no ifs, no buts, there will be no third runway.” For many of us who had devoted enormous time and effort to this cause, this felt like a momentous event. We thought we had quite deliberately been given an unequivocal promise by the man who now has the final say.

Unfortunately these promises have not been held to and we are faced with a renewed lobby by the owners of the airport for expansion and the prime minister has argued that his promise was only for the lifetime of a Parliament and has set in train a process, which may believe is aimed at delivering expansion at Heathrow.

This has resulted in many considering that a return to campaigning including lobbying, demonstrating and direct action is needed to try and ensure that the promises of politicians and the airport owners are adhered to.

At times the debate around whether to expand Heathrow has been a disgrace to our democracy. The manoeuvring to keep the decision away from parliament and the people, including my constituents, and keep it between ministers and lobbyists, pushed me to stage my own  protest by taking the mace during a parliamentary debate in 2009 on the expansion of Heathrow, as a result of which I was suspended from parliament for five days.

My experience in politics over the last 40 years has shown me that these campaigning methods can be extremely successful in bringing the public’s attention to an issue and in influencing government decisions. Securing publicity by means of direct action can alert people across the country to an issue that then leads them to a closer examination of that issue and often taking the matter up with the relevant policy makers. In this way policies are influenced and changed for the good of the whole community. But in order to be a direct action rather than an extension of political speech, it also stops, or at least interrupts, the problem it is addressing, which makes it a disruptive act. Although the specific direct action can at times cause some short term inconvenience, by highlighting a threat like climate change, it can have a longer term and more significant effect on averting the impact of a greater risk.

When an activist or group decide to intervene to interrupt a problem directly, they take on a huge responsibility to ensure what they do is safe, proportionate and reasonable. No-one should disrupt other people’s lives lightly or without good cause.  But modern history is full of examples of peaceful civil disobedience which was both necessary and effective, and in many cases a vital defence of democracy. Some governments and some corporations need more than just a sternly worded letter.

Of course I will have always sought to and will continue to maximise the use of Parliamentary methods to seek to influence the Government’s decision on Heathrow but one of the most effective methods of securing political change on this issue in the past has been the demonstration by campaigning of the large scale and extensive opposition to an additional runway at Heathrow. Direct action campaigns have made a significant contribution to this. Given the urgency of the environmental problems Heathrow is causing, and the deeply disappointing lack of commitment shown by Heathrow and the government to unequivocal promises they have both made, it’s almost inevitable that activists will lose patience with a process that they no longer trust and do what they can to solve the problems themselves.