By Sophie Broad
On 13th June 2015 at around 3.30am, direct action pressure group Plane Stupid cut a hole in a fence at Heathrow Airport, making their way onto the north runway and proceeding to chain themselves to railings. This caused major disruption at the airport, the cost of which was described as of an “absolutely astronomical” scale by judge Deborah Wright. 25 flights were cancelled, with many more delayed, affecting thousands of passengers. On 18th January, their trial began.13 protestors, aged from 23-68 years old, faced charges of aggravated trespass and entering a security-restricted area. After a week long trial, on the 25th January they were found guilty.
For some years now, there have been discussions about the possibility of expansion at Heathrow or Gatwick airport, the main focus on a third runway being built at Heathrow. In 2009, David Cameron dismissed any possibility of a third runway. However, last year a recommendation by the Airport Commission was made to build a new runway at Heathrow, estimated to cost £17 billion, indicating plans could be underway soon. Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, does not support expanding any London airport, nor does Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate for for this years London Mayoral election. Plane Stupid formed in opposition to potential airport expansion and, among their other aims, to stop short haul flights and aviation advertising.
The group were able to use climate change as their defence. They argued that the actions they took were necessary in order to save lives and prevent people dying from air pollution and climate change. Despite the judge acknowledging the protesters were “principled people”, she stated that a prison sentence would be very likely. Judge Wright did not agree that they were to save lives but “there to make a point.” Heathrow Airport welcomed the verdict, a spokesperson stating: “Anyone who breaks the law and interferes with the safe and smooth operation of the airport can expect full prosecution under the law.”
In many cities across the UK, including Cardiff, air pollution levels are at a dangerous high.The failure of the UK to reach EU standards led to a Supreme Court ruling in April last year, that the government needed to take stronger action on pollution. This is mainly because it has been directly linked to the deterioration of people’s health. It has been estimated that around 30,000 people die every year in the UK alone from air pollution. Shortly after the Heathrow 13 verdict, Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, commented “where’s the justice for victims of air pollution and climate change?”. At the beginning of the year, in London it took eight days to breach the annual air pollution limit set by the EU. It is expected that air quality will not improve or comply with EU standards until 2020 at the very earliest.
It is not possible to say whether the protestors actions will have had any impact on the current plans for Heathrow expansion or more broadly, on the issue of the environment and air pollution, but the verdict indicates this is unlikely. Many hold the view that because the Heathrow 13 are law-breakers they deserve punishment. Yet, if we consider this in its wider context, climate change appears to be next issue that ordinary people are being forced to challenge and take on themselves. In the past non-violent direct action has been successful in bringing about some of the biggest and most positive changes in society. Is it right to vilify those that break the law if the law seems in favour of exempting responsibility and accountability of those failing to address the problem of air pollution, something that is subsequently damaging the environment and people’s health? Those who are attempting to highlight the dangerous effects of climate change are being condemned and those who are causing and perpetuating the issue are able to act with impunity.
Plane Stupid took action to highlight the growing danger of climate change and to bring about a discussion and influence the decisions that will soon be made regarding expanding the airport. For people living in close proximity to the airport the worry about air and sound pollution and the concerns about health and the climate are not subsiding. They are largely being ignored, especially in light of the prospect of a new runway being built. This is not to say these concerns are exclusive to Londoners; it is a UK-wide problem. Plane Stupid wanted to bring mainstream attention to the issue and in their minds direct action was the only possible answer. Following the verdict, their statement read: “Climate change and air pollution from Heathrow are killing people now, and the government’s response is to spend millions making the problem bigger. As long as airport expansion is on the agenda, Plane Stupid will be here. We’re in it for the long haul.” Their sentence will be given on the 24th February.