LONDON – With its classic red phone booth, pub, and medieval church, Harmondsworth’s centre looks quintessentially British. But the search for a twee English village isn’t what brings millions of people within a stone’s throw of its boundaries.
The attraction is neighbouring Heathrow Airport, which served 73 million travellers last year. Now Europe’s busiest airport is proposing to build a runway roughly through the centre of town, levelling the ivy-covered brick walls of the Harmondsworth Hall guest house and two-thirds of its homes. A village that traces its history to the 6th century would be forever altered, and some argue even what’s left would be uninhabitable.
“There’s no compensation package that would interest me,” said Neil Keveren, who chairs a local community group opposed to the expansion. “We have a historic village with buildings that go back 600 years. You cannot replace that. You cannot buy memories.”
Harmondsworth is under threat because London and southeastern England need more airport capacity to meet the growing demands of business travellers and tourists. Heathrow and rival Gatwick, 30 miles (50 kilometres) south of central London, have offered competing projects that will cost as much as 18.6 billion pounds ($29.1 billion). Whichever proposal is selected, homes will be destroyed and surviving neighbourhoods will have to cope with increased noise, pollution and traffic.
The issue is so toxic that politicians created an independent commission to weigh the options. Government officials then postponed a decision until after the May 7 election, effectively taking the matter off the political agenda, if but briefly.
The commission is set to make its recommendation as soon as next month. It will then be up to political leaders to make the final decision. A furious public relations battle has raged in advance, with placards all over London’s subway system, for example, extolling the virtues of Heathrow or Gatwick. The commission has already rejected other options, including Mayor Boris Johnson’s proposal for a new airport in the Thames Estuary.
According to the commission, all three remaining proposals, including two different plans to expand Heathrow, would meet the region’s needs, though the costs and potential benefits would vary. Gatwick, for instance, would cost an estimated 9.3 billion pounds and boost Britain’s gross domestic product by as much as 127 billion pounds. The most expensive Heathrow project would cost twice as much and boost GDP by up to 211 billion pounds, the commission estimates.
Making the right decision is crucial as London seeks to retain a competitive edge.
In a globalized world, airports offer the opportunity for investment bankers, lawyers, consultants and engineers to make face-to-face connections in major markets where deals are made, said John Kasarda, director of the centre for air commerce at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
“This is contact sport, particularly at the global level,” Kasarda said. “This isn’t done over the net.”
And the ability to move — and connect — faster makes a country and its economy more competitive. Opting not to expand is a tacit acknowledgement that the government is willing to have some of those jobs go to a competitor, such as Paris, Amsterdam or Dubai.
“It’s the survival of the fastest,” Kasarda said. “It’s no longer the big eating the small. It is the fast eating the slow.”
But there is a human cost, as communities like Harmondsworth and others that might be affected know all too well.
Heathrow external relations director Nigel Milton said he understands that some people are very upset, though he claims there are residents in Harmondsworth who support the project but might not want to come forward to support the idea. He acknowledges the local impact, but said the company would offer compensation packages — even to those whose homes would not need to be levelled but who would find themselves living next to a runway.
“We believe we are being fair,” he said.
Countries like Britain have struggled with the notion of balancing national gain with local pain. Harmondsworth and the nearby village of Sipson are “stylized examples of the challenge all big societies face: progress meets obstacles,” said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics.
Britain has sought to strike a balance between growth and safeguarding its heritage, and grassroots conservation movements have grown up to protect cultural landmarks. Unlike communities such as Venice in Italy, Britain hasn’t allowed beauty to hamper progress — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t taken into account.
“If Harmondsworth were not this beautiful village, this decision would be that much easier to make,” Travers said.
Local campaigners say they’ve been told the latest proposal would avoid landmarks like St. Mary’s Church, which traces its history to the mid-11th century and the Great Barn, a 15th century oak-framed behemoth — 192 feet long, 37 feet wide and 39 feet high — dubbed the “Cathedral of Middlesex” by the late poet laureate John Betjeman.
But opponents say the proposed runway would be so close to what’s left of the village that no one would be able to stand to live there because of the noise and the bad air. In other words, there’d be a church but no congregation, said archaeological scientist Justine Bayley.
“They have no concern that they are screwing up the lives of hundreds of thousands of people for their shareholders,” she said of her village and others along the flightpath and in west London who are affected by the noise.
Keveren nods. His fury is evident as he waves a 2010 election leaflet in which Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party pledged to fight Heathrow expansion. Keveren says he feels deceived.
“My grandparents worked this land. I have war dead in the cemetery of the church. This is my home and if I am forced to leave here, who will it be for? Foreign investors,” he said spinning with outrage. “The message I would give to the world is that the British government can be bought.”