Airplot: The Inside Story

| 4th March 2009
What started as a pub chat evolved into Greenpeace’s most audacious coup yet. Joss Garman reports on a plan to pull the carpet out from under BAA ’s third runway at Heathrow – by buying up the very land beneath its feet

I'm told I was about four metres away from them when they hatched it. They were innocently sipping pints on the pavement outside the Island Queen in north London and bemoaning the scientific illiteracy of Gordon Brown– whose administration had assumed office a few months beforehand and had flown a number of anti-environmental kites in the media that week.

Whitehall sources were whispering to their Fleet Street contacts that the new PM was ready to authorise new coal-fired power stations and a third runway at Heathrow. A brief cessation of hostilities while they waited to see which way the new Brown-run Labour government would go was coming to an end. The Green movement was ready to slide its unfounded optimism back into the drawer and end the ceasefire with No 10.

Behind me that evening, murmuring dark thoughts about what to expect from Brown, were Sarah North and Laura Yates. North is the campaigns director at Greenpeace UK, Yates a climate campaigner who was leaving the organisation to move to Paris. It was her leaving drinks that had brought us to the pub. I didn’t know it until more than a year later, but it was on this evening that North took a sip of lager, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and said: ‘Of course, we could always buy Gordon’s runway from under his nose’.

Acorns to oaks

Not even she could have known that, 15 months later, the Evening Standard would describe this acorn of an idea as ‘the ingenious plan that could stop Heathrow expansion’, and that ‘Airplot’ would have made headlines all around the world.

Sarah North is a veteran of the roads protests of the 1990s, and was once described as ‘a thorn in the side of Nigerian generals’ by the Independent after her direct actions following the murder of anti-Shell campaigner, Ken Saro-Wiwa. For her the Heathrow fight is a bypass battle writ large, and now with the added threat of climate change. It was not just a matter of public campaigning, but about the taking and holding of the land.

In September 2007, she was exhausted after leading the successful battle to overturn the Government’s energy policy in the High Court, setting back Tony Blair’s nuclear programme by two years. The pro-runway soundings coming out of government rarely mentioned climate change, and the word was that the coming consultation into Heathrow expansion was both a CO2 free-zone and a stitch-up. She wanted some way – any way – to inject climate into the process, preferably the legal process, to stop the runway being built. That’s when she hit upon the idea of buying Brown’s runway.

‘We were feeling pretty confident after our win in the High Court over Blair’s energy policy, and we thought if we could buy the runway we’d have a stake in the legal process and get climate into the courts when they tried to wrestle it back from us,’ North says.

Of course, most ideas conceived down the pub collapse under the sheer weight of their own logistical impracticality, but on this occasion North just wouldn’t let it go. ‘Seriously,’ she said to Yates that night, ‘BAA would have to argue it has a greater interest in the land than the victims of climate change. We could own the runway land on behalf of people in Tuvalu or the Inuit community.’

At this moment I apparently turned around and asked what they were whispering about. Already appreciating the need for secrecy on the project, Sarah North remembers shrugging her shoulders and, with a mildly cheeky grin, saying, ‘Nuffin’.

She mulled it over that weekend, asking her partner – a lawyer who acts as legal observer for the Climate Camp – whether there was any mileage in the idea. The following Monday morning she put the idea to the organisation’s director John Sauven – described by the Sunday Times as ‘a suave political insider’ – and Greenpeace’s head of media, Ben Stewart. Both got it straight away.

Sauven gave the project the green light, but was not yet ready to direct resources at it. The group was instead busy planning the shutdown of Kingsnorth power station, where most of the organisation’s resources were being directed. Soon after the Kingsnorth shutdown had been delivered Sauven turned his attention to Heathrow, and authorised North to take the project forward under a thick cloak of secrecy.

Greenpeace has long known its office is bugged, so campaigners have to take extra precautions. For the runway project it was decided at an early stage to adopt security proceedings usually followed only for the planning and execution of direct action protests. The worry was that airport operator BAA would learn what it planned, and Greenpeace would soon find itself in a bidding war – a war it would inevitably lose. Later, when TV comedian Alistair McGowan became involved, the project was given the moniker ‘Operation Baldrick’ – on account, he said, of its cunning nature.

The Kingsnorth shutdown had been a success: 20,000 tonnes of CO2 had been prevented from being released and six activists charged with £30,000 of criminal damage. The campaigners intended to plead not guilty on climate change grounds and the scene was set for an iconic trial. North decided to split her team between preparing for the trial and buying Brown’s runway. Anna Jones, who had just joined Greenpeace and – as importantly – had recently been through the purgatory of buying a house, was given the task of pulling off the property coup.

‘Google Earth became my best friend,’ she says. ‘The Land Registry was also vital to what we were trying to do, but some documents related to people from the 1950s, so tracing those owners of runway land was difficult. We knew BAA had been buying up land and we wanted to find a patch that was still available and big enough physically to defend from the bulldozers, should it come to that. We were also looking at ways to let people from around the world take ownership of the land with us.

The most powerful thing about the campaign against the runway has been the fact that a movement exists, comprising all sectors of society. We wanted to complement that movement, and so finding a way for thousands of people to be some kind of co-owner of the runway was really important.’

Jones made contact with Mike Seifert, a lawyer who worked with the ANC leadership in exile during the apartheid years. He immediately gelled with the team and had the advantage of knowing leading authorities in property and planning law. He became the sixth person brought into the fold.

‘It was a fascinating challenge, and one that’s still continuing,’ he says. ‘How to structure a land purchase so thousands of people can have a stake and a voice in a field, and when the whole thing has to be done in secret. In the end we settled on the idea of people becoming beneficial owners of the land. They could go to the Greenpeace UK website and sign up, and be represented in any subsequent legal battle for the land. But first we had to find the field.’

Become a beneficial owner

There is a popular perception that BAA’s planned expansion would comprise a mere strip of tarmac, but in reality what is planned is a rectangular development the size of Gatwick airport, including a new sixth terminal, that would simply be bolted on to the north edge of Heathrow. Ben Stewart, who spent two years working for a newspaper in Arab East Jerusalem, pointed out that if the Greenpeace team purchased a plot of land in the centre of the rectangle, BAA could only build the new runway if the development included a kind of Jerusalem corridor – the sliver of Israeli land cutting into the occupied West Bank to give Israel-proper access to the Holy City. ‘In other words,’ says Stewart, ‘if they wanted to build the runway but we owned the land right in the middle, BAA’s development would look something like occupied Palestine. It wouldn’t be a contiguous landmass. It wouldn’t be in a viable state to build a £9 billion development.’

Jones walked the streets of Sipson – the village earmarked for destruction in the runway plans – getting to know local people and asking if any land was free for purchase. ‘It was important we kept a low profile as we wanted to avoid a bidding war with BAA,’ he says. ‘Also, the plan was to reveal we had the land on the same day as the Government announcement of a third runway, so we needed to maintain the shock value of what we’d done.’

Jones met a range of colourful characters, but the right piece of land remained elusive. It was a race against time with the owners of the few suitable fields not willing to sell, and the Government green light for expansion at Heathrow appearing imminent. Then, in late 2008, an available plot was uncovered right at the centre of BAA’s proposed development. It was perfect, but efforts to buy it became stuck in a quagmire of negotiations and haggling – a situation made vastly more complicated by the secrecy the Greenpeace team had to adopt.

Around this time they’d also made contact with Alistair McGowan, who had been a Greenpeace supporter for years. He has since told the press: ‘The Government, by deciding to build this runway, is sticking two fingers up to the environment and the people of this world. By giving this runway the go-ahead, Gordon Brown is effectively holding a giant blowtorch to the polar icecaps and saying “Melt! Melt!”’ McGowan said he’d buy the runway with Greenpeace.

Soon, Ecologist director Zac Goldsmith and actor Emma Thompson had made similar commitments.

With time running out, the team were frank with the landowner. He now knew who the buyers were and why they wanted the land. ‘He totally understood and really, in focusing on security, we totally underestimated how much local people hate BAA,’ Jones says.

It still looked as though it would happen too late, however. The runway announcement was due for December and the whole project was mired in the minutiae of property law. Then transport secretary Geoff Hoon announced a four-week delay – a final chance to pull it off.

It later emerged that, behind the scenes, environment secretary Hilary Benn and climate change secretary Ed Miliband were leading a Cabinet revolt, with a split running through the Labour Party from top to bottom and more than 50 Labour MPs rebelling.

‘The movement’s multiple strands really paid off,’ Jones explains. ‘While John [Sauven] was speaking to Emma Thompson, as well as MPs from all three parties, Miliband and Benn were managing to delay the decision. Ultimately, we managed to sign the legal deeds on the Friday before Hoon gave the runway the green light.’

At the time of going to press, 30,000 people from around the world have signed up to be beneficial owners of the land. But Sauven is not satisfied: "We’ve got dozens of MPs on the title deeds and people from all over the world, from Sipson to San Francisco. But we need to make this as hard for the Government and BAA as we can.

"Ecologist readers are the kind of people we need to get involved and stop this runway, so we’re hoping they’ll go to Greenpeace and get involved. This runway cannot and will not be built."


Joss Garman is an environmental campaigner and journalist.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2009

More from this author