Although there had been early signs of the proposal from 1997, the project of Heathrow expansion became official in December 2003, when the then British transport secretary, Alistair Darling, backed a third runway at Heathrow in the aviation white paper. That 2003 Air Transport White Paper asserted that there was a powerful economic imperative for an additional runway, with only the provisos that conditions relating to air quality, noise and improving surface access should be met.
In December 2006, in an update to the white paper, the then Labour British government reiterated its support for a third runway, despite the environmental agenda. Ministers again cited the economy as a key factor. The conservative and liberal governments, including Mayor Boris Johnson, were opposed to the plan.
In August 2007, many local and national groups which had been campaigning since 2002 against the airport expansion and also many autonomous environmental activists set up the Camp for Climate Action near Sipson, a village due to be demolished under the airport expansion plans, on the northern edge of Heathrow. Over 2000 protesters at the camp highlighted the catastrophic climate change impacts of air travel, and impacts on the economy and local community destruction and called for climate justice. They spent 2 weeks organising creative actions, workshops and activities against the third runway, blockaded the offices. The impact of the Climate Camp on the anti-third runway campaign was momentous. Activists, politicians and local people engaged in action and insurrection within sight of Heathrow and in the full glare of the world’s media sent out the most powerful of messages.
Since then the different groups have continued carrying on actions against the expansion plan. In January 2009 The British government approved a third runway, to take the number of flights handled by the airport from 480,000 to more than 700,000 a year. The announcement was condemned by opposition MPs, residents and green groups.
Much effort has been made by those in favour of airport expansion to ‘prove’ an incontrovertible economic case for it. But the economic benefits were often difficult to pin down. Not only is there lack of an agreed metric for accurately measuring the economic benefits but there are several unresolved and contested issues. The proponents of the third Runway especially faced a formidable environmental hurdle because of the climate change impacts of air travel. Aviation policy clashes with objectives for sustainable development and policy to tackle climate change.
The official permission came after six years of consultation, debate and controversy. However, in mid-May 2010 the Heathrow airport expansion was cancelled. The coalition of groups had taken the government before the High Court and they won. The judge had found that the Government’s decision in 2009 to give BAA the green light for the third runway was flawed. He ruled that it did not take into account the most recent evidence on climate change and economics because it was based on the 2003 Air Transport White Paper.
This decision came as a result of an iconic campaig spanning nearly a decade. The triumph was no fluke. It wasnt a question of luck. It was the result of a clear strategy, a radical approach, daring tactics and an utter refusal to believe that the protesters wouldnt win.
However, despite the victory, new plans and proposals for the expansion of the airport are continually in the works. The climate camp is now an annual event held in different locations in the UK and around the world.