New Internationalist

Protesters question airport expansion plans

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'We are watching' - protesters at London City Airport on 21 July. © Natasha Lees

A group of climate activists and local residents staged a protest earlier this week inside London City Airport, to oppose plans for its expansion. Climate change campaign group The Future questions the logic behind expanding London’s only inner-city airport when air pollution levels in the capital are already the highest in the country. In some areas, they are linked to one in 12 deaths per year.

‘Did you see the irony the way they call it “Field of hope”? Field of choke,’ says Julie as we walk along the aptly named playground adjacent the airport’s terminal building. For the past eight years, Julie has lived right under the planes’ landing path. ‘From six o’clock in the evening, we just know that we can’t keep the doors or windows open,’ she says. She has joined 10 other campaigners for a silent 20-minute protest at the entrance to the airport’s terminal building. The Future drew a circle around their right eyes – their symbol, which stands for ‘we are watching’.

The group is protesting because they believe a decision is due to be made any day now. However, a spokesperson for Newham Council, which is currently considering the airport’s planning application, said: ‘We’re having an ongoing discussion with [London City Airport] and their application isn’t likely to be heard until later this year.’ The council declined further comments ‘on an application that hasn’t been heard’.

‘They’ve been creeping in,’ says Julie. ‘We’ve been getting more and more flights earlier in the morning, and on weekends. When I first moved here, I was aware we had the airport, and that was fine, that was what we’d settled with. Most of the residents knew what we were getting, and that was 73,000 flights a year.’ Since it was opened in 1988, the airport has grown from an initial 133,000 passengers to over 3 million, 25 times as many, in 2013. Last September, the airport unveiled $340-million plans to expand its current infrastructure, needed in order to nearly double its capacity to 120,000 flights a year over the next 10 years. In 2009, London City Airport received planning permission to increase the number of flights, and is now seeking to build a new terminal extension, new parking stands and a taxiway. Last December, 1,000 local residents handed in a petition to Newham Council against the proposals.

Empty promises

The airport occupies 500,000 square metres in the Royal Docks, in the heart of East London – one of the city’s most economically deprived areas. Newham has the second-largest unemployment rate in the capital and, despite being one of London’s six Olympics boroughs, it saw much larger increases in unemployment between 2005 and 2010 than the rest of London (44 per cent compared to London’s 21 per cent).

Proponents argue that the airport facilitates trade, catering as it does to business executives from nearby Canary Wharf and the City of London, and that its expansion would create new jobs. However, there is a sense that the local community not only feels worlds apart from the cash and careers of most of the airport’s customers, but also feels let down by empty promises. ‘Jobs? We haven’t seen any jobs. We’ve seen nothing. No-one I know got a job at the airport,’ says Ted, who has lived in the area all his life.

Since it was opened in 1988, the airport has grown from an initial 133,000 passengers to over 3 million in 2013

London-based think-tank the New Economics Foundation (NEF) recently published a report arguing that the airport creates little value for local people and should be closed. Its exclusive clientele, they argue, make up only 2.4 per cent of London’s overall passengers and could use one of the other four nearby airports, further facilitated by planned improvements to transport links to the business districts. NEF makes the case for the Royal Docks to be redeveloped sustainably with mixed housing, business, shared cultural spaces and tourist attractions that would directly impact on the lives of its residents and create opportunities.

Near King George V station, one of the areas set to be most affected by the expansion, the high street is eerily empty. A number of local shops in the nearby square are open, but there’s hardly the bustle you would expect. Towering council blocks follow crumbling Victorian buildings, followed by shiny new apartments, looking as if no-one ever quite knew what to do with these streets.

There is confusion among residents as to whether some of the housing blocks in the area are likely to be bought off by London City Airport which, under its noise management scheme, has an obligation to offer to purchase properties suffering from noise pollution over 69 decibels, if the owner of the property lodges an application.

‘They’re lifting our hopes, saying that we have a choice of where we would like to end up,’ says Tammy, who lives in a social housing block. In London, a chronic lack of social housing paired with skyrocketing rents means that social housing tenants are sometimes offered to be re-housed outside the city. Some residents fear this might be on the cards for them. ‘I don’t want to end up in Hastings, or Bristol,’ says Tammy.

‘What we’re saying today to anyone using the airport is look, your flight is fine, we are just protesting against it expanding further into the community,’ says writer and activist Tamsin Omond, who masterminded the protest. But the issue is larger, she says: ‘It’s about what can we make of London rather than what will be pushed down on London. It’s a different way of building a vision.’

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