Locking-on to London Heathrow Airport: lessons from the past?

| 26th June 2018

An aerial view of Terminal 3 at London Heathrow Airport.

Panhard, Wikipedia
The decision by MPs to support the Conservative government in allowing the third runway to go ahead has angered and dismayed all those concerned about climate change. It follows decades of debate and campaigning. MAXINE NEWLANDS looks at why the Heathrow climate camp in 2007 was so important in the history of the UK environmental activism.

Lock-on-limbo at ceilidhs and tea parties were demystifying and challenging the legacy media coverage, and capacity building with local villages.

Theresa May has won a vote in the House of Commons to support highly controversial plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport - despite the obvious implications for climate change and pollution impacting the local community.

MPs voted yesterday by 415 to 119 in favour of the proposal - despite previous promises to oppose the plan from May herself, and also Boris Johnson, one time Conservative leader candidate and now foreign secretary. John McDonnell, the Labour shadow chancellor, spoke passionately against the plan, focusing on the impact on his constituents.

A third runway will see passenger numbers increase from 78 million to 130,000 million a year. London Heathrow airport’s expansion plans have for almost two decades been a crucial battleground for the climate change movement.

Watershed moment

Environmentalists and west London residents are concerned the third runway will see an increase in short haul flights, noise - increasing emissions. It represents a catastrophic failure to address climate change.

Not since the 2007 Camp for Climate Action - aka Climate Camp 07 - has the Heathrow debate been at the forefront of climate action.

Climate Camp 07 became a watershed moment as activists took control of the media message and widened their action to include community outreach. It also included successful challenges to a court injunction.

The action was the largest of the five climate camps which took place from 2005 to the early noughties. Activists purposefully chose close to Heathrow airport as a protest campsite, to tap into a groundswell of interest over climate change.

Imperial College’s sports field, between the two villages of Sipson and Harlington, was a perfect spot for a climate camp. With parliamentary approval for a third runway, the nearby villages of Sipson and Harlington will be bulldozed to make way for the runway and a sixth terminal.

A couple of weeks before Climate Camp 07, the owners of London Heathrow Airport - Heathrow Holdings, then named British Airports Authority-Heathrow - secured an injunction to stop the camp from going ahead.

The injunction stopped an unspecified number of people gathering within 100 metres of any airport operation, replying on anti-stalking and anti-terrorism laws under the Terrorism Act (2000) and the Protection from Harassment Act (1997).  Anyone recording images, carrying gardening equipment, balloons, or megaphones also faced arrest.

The vague, catch all-nature of the injunction meant everyone from Plane Stupid and climate camp activists to members of the Women’s Institute and National Trust risked arrest.

BAA’s plans backfired. The publicity helped the camp go from a small scale protest to thousands of people wanting to know how to get involved. One activist, called Steve, said: "It became a bit like the 1966 World Cup Final, where there were only about 60,000 people there and about 300,000 people say they were there”.

Lock-on-limbo at ceilidhs and tea parties were demystifying and challenging the legacy media coverage, and capacity building with local villages.

Media Message

The Sun newspaper named the camp, Camp Crusty. The London Evening Standard’s now infamous headline, “Extremist to hijack climate camp demo: Militants in plot to paralyse Heathrow,” from 13 August 2007 was seen as a tactic to divide public opinion after the injunction failure.

The camp's own media team decided to take on the Evening Standard through the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). The PCC found in favour of the camp - ruling that the Evening Standard’s evidence was just hearsay.

Asked why the camp hadn’t made official challenges before, the answer from a camp spokesperson came back: “Because [this time] we could and we knew we would win.”

Two years later, the camp media team went back to the PCC over reporting of the G20 action (2009) in the city of London. The PCC again found in favour of the camps media team.

This tactic of using the master’s tools shifts the power relations between the camps and journalists. Just as the anti-roads protest of the 1980s shifted power relations – by making the journalists come to them – so too, going to the media’s own ombudsman gives the activists a voice.

Wider community

Other tactics saw activists ‘adopting a resident’ to share tactics, media strategies, knowledge, tips on non-violent direct mobilisation, civil disobedience, and social media engagement.

Adopt a resident was a way to defuse any divide and rule reporting, and challenge the media reporting. Lock-on-limbo at ceilidhs and tea parties were demystifying and challenging the legacy-media coverage. It was also important in terms of capacity building.

But west London residents now remain in limbo as governments change and plans go on hold.

John Stewart from HACAN points out that by widening the outreach beyond the Heathrow villages, activists were targeting journalists and politicians living within a 15-mile radius of Heathrow of West and South West London.

“A lot of journalists lived under the flight path to Heathrow, and they were against a third runway at Heathrow, they couldn’t do anything else," Mr Stewart added.

Lessons learnt

Politicians now face opposition from Vote Noշ Heathrow and Plane Stupid. Sadiq Khan, the major of London, a coalition of four local authorities and the environmental group Greenpeace are now threatening legal action.

Activist can learn from history, can learn the tactics used to challenge media coverage and tap into a national desire to ‘do more’ about climate change.

They can also capacity build through outreach work with wider communities, sharing a repertoire of protest, and use tools like the PCC to challenge the media narrative.

This time climate justice has the support of local residents, politicians, activist stalwarts, environmental non-government organisations and - of course - the Paris Accord signed by global leaders.

This Author

Dr Maxine Newlands researches environmental communication and governance around the Great Barrier Reef, the UK, Australian politics, and global environmental governance. Parts of this article come from Maxine’s new book, Environmental Activism and the Media: the Politics of Protest (Peter Lang Publishers). Max is based in Queensland, Australia. @Dr_MaxNewlands

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