What happened to the Airplot?

Posted by sgelmini — 25 June 2015 at 5:18pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: John Cobb / Greenpeace

There's a story on the Guardian website today which has thrown up questions about what happened to the land that we bought some years ago to block plans for a third runway at Heathrow. It claims that the land was sold back to its original owner (which is true, and with good reason) and that we didn't publicise this (which is also true, also with good reason).

Airplot - as the piece of land was known - was a big part of a hugely successful campaign to stop a new runway being built over the village of Sipson at Heathrow airport. Backed by nearly 100,000 people including celebrities, politicians, and local residents, the initiative played a crucial role in securing a commitment from the coalition government that plans for the controversial project would be scrapped.

A new runway would have derailed efforts to cut carbon emissions, brought more air and noise pollution to thousands of people already impacted by air and surface traffic, and razed to the ground a whole village. We were determined to stop the project and score a landmark victory for climate action. And here's what we did.

In 2009, we bought a plot of land near Heathrow airport, on the site of the proposed third runway. We wanted to create a significant legal headache for any government wanting to push ahead with expansion plans.

Airplot was legally owned by Greenpeace UK, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, actor Emma Thompson, and comedian Alistair McGowan, and tens of thousands of people were given the opportunity to get on board by becoming "beneficial owners" of airplot. This arrangement allowed those supporters to join the 'club' of people owning the land, without all the legal complication of becoming actual owners.

Since at Greenpeace we are not land developers and had no interest in owning the land beyond the campaign, we came to an agreement with the previous owner that gave him the option of buying back the plot at a symbolic price of £1 should the government drop its controversial plans. This is exactly what happened.

By May 2010, both the Prime Minister David Cameron and his then deputy Nick Clegg had given their word that a third runway at Heathrow would not go ahead, and the pledge was included in the coalition agreement. David Cameron himself couldn't have been clearer about his commitment saying: "The third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts." He even agreed to adopt a tree growing on Airplot, while Nick Clegg had become one of the beneficial owners.

In 2012, when our three-year agreement with the previous landowner came up for renewal, we were faced with the tough choice of whether to return the land or pay £10,000 to extend the contract. At that point, plans for a third runway were practically dead, and for all intents and purposes the campaign had been won. At least that's what we thought. The two most senior politicians in the country had given their word that the project wouldn't go ahead, and everyone took that to be the end.

Was Greenpeace too naive when we took the people running the country at their word? Perhaps. But based on the situation at the time we couldn't justify spending an additional £10,000 of our supporters' money on retaining the land. We did say at the time that the Airplot "probably won't be needed now" and yes, in retrospect the smart move would have been to explain this to our supporters more explicitly.

Three years on, the proposal of a third runway has crept back onto the table, with a government-appointed commission expected to make its recommendation on airport expansion within days. The proposal at Heathrow is to build a new runway slightly to the west of Sipson and the Airplot land, which this time does not face being bulldozed.

Whether or not they moved their plans because of Airplot, we may never know. But if we had spent our supporters' money on extending our ownership of the land, it would not have represented the legal block against a new runway that it did last time, because the site of the proposed new runway has moved.

Although Airplot and the tree adopted by David Cameron may no longer be there, the legacy of this hugely successful campaign hasn't gone away. Millions of people will remember the 'no ifs, no buts' promise made by David Cameron, and the groundswell of public opposition which prompted it.

If the prime minister were to renege on this pledge, this would be a tyre-screeching U-turn to eclipse the Lib-Dem volte-face on tuition fees. The political price he and his party would pay could be as high.

UPDATE 26/6/15: The Airplot website is no longer available, but it contained a wealth of detail about ownership of the land and you can download a large screengrab of the whole page. It also explained what we would do with the land if we won the campaign:

"If the third runway is cancelled we have promised to return the land to its previous owner and focus our efforts on other threats to the climate and the planet.”

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